The White Captive

Artist: Erastus Dow Palmer (American, Pompey, New York 1817–1904 Albany, New York)

Date: 1857–58; carved 1858–59

Medium: Marble

Dimensions: 65 x 20 1/4 x 17 in. (165.1 x 51.4 x 43.2 cm)

Classification: Sculpture

Credit Line: Bequest of Hamilton Fish, 1894

Accession Number: 94.9.3


Palmer would undoubtedly be pleased that "The White Captive" is his best-known sculpture, for when he began it he wrote, "I am now busy modeling my finest work." In this full-length nude, the artist took the opportunity to create a pendant for the "Indian Girl" (94.9.2). While in the earlier sculpture he wished "to show the influence of Christianity upon the savage," in "The White Captive" he explored "the influence of the savage upon Christianity." Thus from the beginning "The White Captive" was, in the sculptor's mind, the personification of Christianity. "The White Captive" portrays a youthful female figure who has been abducted from her sleep and held captive by savage Indians. Hands bound, and stripped of a nightgown hanging from a tree trunk, she turns her head away from the terror, and clenches her left first, in defiance of imminent harm. Palmer avoided the often cold appearance of Italianate neoclassical sculpture, in part by using for his model a local girl. Palmer was particularly commended for his use of a "thoroughly American" subject that makes a conscious allusion to the endless skirmishes between the Native Americans and the white pioneers. It is these naturalistic and individualizing qualities that have, down through the years, earned such praise for Palmer's sculpture. "The White Captive" was exhibited by itself at the William Schaus gallery in New York City, from November 1859 to January 1860, where viewers paid twenty-five cents to see the sculpture displayed on a rotating pedestal.