A family group is posed in a broad, open landscape in the late afternoon or early evening. The woman has just given birth, and she reclines exhaustedly against an escarpment, her right hand on her abdomen. Her male companion sits up on his knees, cradling their baby. The figures’ skin is pale, and they could be mistaken for Europeans, but a number of details suggest that they are intended to be identified as Native Americans. The father wears three feathers in his hair; a canoe with two paddles sits on the riverbank; in the foreground at the lower left are a decorated pot and a bowl, a tomahawk, with its blade embedded in the earth, and what appears to be a fly whisk. This is the only scene set in the Americas that Delacroix ever painted.
The subject is adapted from the epilogue of the widely read Romantic novella Atala
, by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768–1848). Atala
was first published in 1801, in Paris, then included as part of Le Génie du Christianisme
in 1802, and finally issued as part of Les Natchez
in 1826. The fictional narrative is based on the fate of the actual Natchez people, whose ancestral land included the southwestern portion of present-day Mississippi, in the wake of French military incursions in 1730. It recounts how, following the massacre of the tribe, two survivors attempt to make their way to safety through a wild and luxuriant landscape described in maximally lyrical terms. Delacroix noted the subject as a potential topic for a painting in his Journal
on October 5, 1822: “A young Canadian traveling through the wilderness with her husband is taken by labor pains and lies down; the father takes the newborn in his arms.”Delacroix’s First Painting Campaign, 1823–24:
On December 22 or 23, 1823, over one year after outlining the theme, Delacroix wrote: “I’m at work on my savages” (Je travaille à mes sauvages). In 1824, he left it unfinished, returning to it in 1835. The interim was the defining period of his four-decade career. There is no evidence that the work bore a formal title before 1835, but, for clarity’s sake, it will be referred to as The Natchez
throughout this entry.
The first campaign of work on The Natchez
was bracketed by two ambitious paintings. In 1822, Delacroix had made a successful public debut at the Salon with Dante and Virgil
, also known as The Barque of Dante
(Musée du Louvre, Paris, inv. 3820). The Barque
was duly installed in the Musée de Luxembourg, the museum devoted to works by living artists whose work had been acquired by the French state. Then, in early 1824, work on The Natchez
ceased to enable the completion of the more momentous Scenes from the Massacres at Chios
(see fig. 1 above) for that year’s Salon. The Natchez
was then “more than half sketched in” (Moreau 1873).
The painting underwent technical examination after it was acquired by The Met in 1989, and again in preparation for the retrospective exhibition held in 2018–19. But it has not been possible to determine with any precision its state of finish in 1824. What is clear is that no major revisions occurred during the course of its execution, and that it diverges very little from the two known preparatory studies. One is a loosely brushed pencil and watercolor drawing of the overall composition, in which the baby cradled by the father looks away from rather than toward the viewer, and the mother wears a cloak and cowl (fig. 2). The other is a pencil drawing for the figure of the father (fig. 3).
Although in its final state, the painting reflects the subject as Delacroix outlined it in his Journal
as early as 1822, it is less explicit than Chateaubriand’s text on one key point. In the text, the woman gives birth while her male partner is away hunting for food. By the time he returns, the infant has died, and the mother is preparing funerary rites. In the painting, the child’s eyes are closed but his body is animated. At first glance, the mother’s expression in The Natchez
is one of fatigue, befitting a woman who has recently given birth. The overriding effect of the scene, taking into account the disposition of the figural group, the landscape setting, and the dramatic moment predicated on an escape from danger, is evocative of a Holy Family in traditional depictions of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (the aprocryphal scene of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’s exile prompted by the Massacre of the Innocents [Matthew 2:16–18]). Seen in this light, which is consistent with the underlying Christian theme of the painting’s literary source, the mother’s expression can be understood as revealing an intimation of her child’s tragic fate. Delacroix thus takes license with the text, but he alludes to the death of the child by means of the mother’s expression.The First Campaign—Additional Context:
The various iterations of Atala
published by Chateaubriand between 1801 and 1826 draw from the idea of the Noble Savage. This popular stereotype, disseminated in eighteenth-century literature and art, held that humans in their primitive state were free of the corrupting influence of civilization. With few exceptions, when European artists of the period depicted Native Americans, their aim was not ethnographic accuracy but the embodiment of this type, rooted in allegories of an earlier period; one example is an allegory of America by Delacroix’s friend Eugène Devéria (The Met, 59.208.97
). The innocence attributed to Native Americans conformed to the mythical notion of a Golden Age that preceded recorded history. (In this way, the classicizing figural types of The Natchez
are true to type.) This romanticization of Native Americans as "innocents" was often reinforced by knowledge of their victimization as the result of colonial expansion. Yet a key theme of Chateaubriand’s novella is the triumph of Christian values over "savage" mores. The author’s intention was to rebut a concept that he believed had fueled the violent excesses of the French Revolution (1789–99), which had forced him into exile, first to North America and later to Great Britain.Atala
was rich fodder for French painters, most famously Anne Louis Girodet-Trioson, who exhibited another scene, The Burial of Atala
(Musée du Louvre, inv. 4958), at the Salon of 1808. Delacroix evidently sought to distinguish himself by painting a scene that challenges the faculties of the viewer in novel ways. Whatever episode from Chateaubriand’s story these and other Romantic artists chose to depict, they shared an idealized view of Indigenous Americans inherited from the prior century. This idealization was not inconsistent with Delacroix’s use of the term sauvages
in December 1823 (see above), however, when he used it in his journal to describe the characters he was then painting. It was entirely in keeping with usage of the period. Here is one definition of sauvage
, from the 1798 edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie française
: “pertaining to certain peoples who typically live in the woods, almost without religion, without law, without a fixed place to live, and just as likely with animals as other humans.” Delacroix’s treatment of native Americans was part and parcel of his interest in the exotic, which, for him, as for other artists of the Romantic generation, also encompassed Greeks and Turks, and extended not only to North Africa and India but to historical periods remote in time if not in place.Interruption of The Natchez by Scenes from the Massacres at Chios in early 1824:
The origins of Scenes from the Massacres at Chios
, which treats an episode from the Greek War of Independence, are intertwined with those of The Natchez
. Massacres at Chios
depicts acts of violence perpretrated by Ottoman forces against Greek residents of the Aegean island in early 1822. Delacroix first thought to paint this subject in May 1823, and work on the immense canvas commenced in the middle of January 1824. A watercolor study for Massacres at Chios
(fig. 4) shows that at an early stage of its development, the composition already featured the prominent cleft between the two main figural groupings in the foreground that was present in The Natchez
from its inception. In the Chios
watercolor, the mother at the right sits on the ground with her knees bent, in a pose which mirrors that of the father in The Natchez
. She looks down to her infant, whose body lies beside her.
Simultaneous attention to two mothers—one whose child is dead (Chios
) and one whose child is soon to die (Natchez
)—must have stretched the artist’s capacity to infuse both pictures with commensurate emotional power, and Delacroix appears to have reached an impasse about how to proceed with both works simultaneously. He would find a solution with the aid of a report from Chios, the account given by Olivier Voutier in his Mémoires du colonel Voutier sur la guerre actuelle des Grecs
: “A traveler who witnessed the disasters at Chios told me that nothing had ever produced a more painful impression on his soul than the sight of the cadaver of a young woman whose child still held her withered breasts firmly in its hands.” This book was published in Paris in December 1823, and Delacroix met its author soon afterward, on January 12, 1824. He began to paint Chios
The stricken mother and uncomprehending child mentioned by Voutier undoubtedly summoned to Delacroix’s mind the motif he eventually employed, that of the dead mother with her living child, with which he was certainly already familiar from such works of art as Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving after Raphael’s Plague of Phrygia
(The Met, 17.50.16-13
) and Nicolas Poussin’s Plague at Ashdod
(fig. 5). The figure of the mother in the Chios
watercolor was transformed in the final painting into the elderly woman who looks up and to her left, with an expression that conveys fear giving way to resignation. In the painting, where she sits beside the dead mother and living child, she assumes the role of matriarch in a group that signifies the Three Ages of Man violently ruptured. It seems likely that the adoption of this three-figure grouping in Chios
, in place of the earlier one showing only the mother with her dead child, helped prompt Delacroix to cease work on The Natchez
in 1824. By intensifying the element of despondency in the larger painting, with its more timely subject, the imperative of bringing The Natchez
to a conclusion must have lost urgency.Delacroix’s Second Campaign—Completion and Exhibition of The Natchez in 1835:
When Delacroix resumed work on The Natchez
in 1835 in order to complete it for the Salon, the experience of having transformed the relevant passage of Chios
could not have been remote from his thoughts, even if the association with Chios
was not evident to the public. Delacroix’s circumstances changed dramatically during the dozen years leading up to 1835. The Revolution of 1830, which brought the Bourbon monarchy to an end and ushered in the regime known as the July Monarchy under Louis-Philippe d’Orléans (r. 1830–48), yielded his best-known painting, Liberty Leading the People
(Musée du Louvre, inv. RF 129), exhibited at the Salon of 1831. Delacroix, long a favorite of the new king, had begun to receive state commissions for vast decorative programs in prestigious public spaces, including the Salon du Roi in the Palais Bourbon, Paris, seat of the Assemblée Nationale (1833–37). The figures in The Natchez
, first sketched onto the canvas in 1823, were completed in a smooth, taut style akin to that of the allegorical figures of the Palais Bourbon.
The artist described the subject in an explanatory note in the Salon livret
, or catalogue, which closely echoes the initial projection of the scene he had penned in his Journal
in 1822: "Fleeing the massacre of their tribe, two young savages traveled up the Méschacébé [Mississippi River]. During the voyage, the young woman was seized by labor pains. The moment is that when the father holds the newborn in his hands, and both regard him tenderly (CHATEAUBRIANT [sic], scene from Atala)." Delacroix did not call attention to the liberties he took with the literary source.The Second Campaign—Additional Context:
If the subject of The Natchez
was less immediately relevant in 1824 than that of Chios
, then it is worth considering that in 1835 it was timely. In the first half of the 1830s, Native Americans of the southeastern United States were expelled from their ancestral homelands. Set into motion by President Andrew Jackson, the Trail of Tears, as it is commonly known, was reported in the French press; Alexis de Tocqueville provided his eyewitness account in Democracy in America
(De la démocratie en Amérique
, 2 vols., Paris, 1835–40). It may be coincidental that Delacroix resumed work on The Natchez
and completed it as these events were unfolding, but the prospect of a substantive connection invites scrutiny.
If The Natchez
was related thematically to Massacres at Chios
in 1824, it was related to another, no less exotic subject in 1835, one that Delacroix had taken up more recently: North Africa. One year earlier, at the Salon of 1834, Delacroix showed paintings for the first time based on the diplomatic mission to Morocco and Algeria that he had accompanied in 1832, including The Women of Algiers
(Musée du Louvre, inv. 3824) and A Street in Meknes
(Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1948:4). The artist was aware of the effects of colonialism on the Indigenous culture, and he criticized changes to the urban fabric of Algiers that he witnessed. One manifestation of this sensitivity was a demonstrated preference for “pure” subjects, that is, those unmarked by European influence, as seen in Arabs of Oran
(1834, private collection), a painting depicting two figures seated in a landscape that Delacroix exhibited at the same Salon as The Natchez
. The connection between American and Arab subjects on view at the Salon may not have been any more obvious to the public (or critics) than The Natchez
’s subtle deviations from Chateaubriand’s Atala
, but at least one modern scholar has taken note of it (Cabau 2014).The Natchez
was perhaps more immediately relevant to Delacroix in 1835 than it had been when he first conceived the subject. Shortly after the passage the painting ostensibly illustrates, the mother states, “We are the last of the Natchez.” (Nous sommes les restes des Natchez.) In the months before the picture was completed, Delacroix was mourning his sister’s son, Charles de Verninac, who had died of yellow fever in New York on May 22, 1834. He wrote: “I have learnt of the untimely death of my poor Charles, my good nephew, the only surviving member of my unfortunate family, who should have been my last remaining friend according to the laws of nature, since his age allowed me to hope that he would outlive me . . . . You can imagine what I suffered.”The Natchez
did not find a buyer during or immediately after the Salon. Delacroix exhibited it in Moulins in 1836 and seems to have sold it the following year, apparently to his close friend baron Charles Rivet, to whom he described it as “my sad picture” (mon triste tableau; see Delacroix 1838).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2019]
 These attacks preceded the conflict long known as the French and Indian War of 1754–63 (part of the larger Seven Years' War between France and Great Britain), which has often been described as the historical context for the painting’s subject. On the Natchez people, see John R. Swanton, Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico [Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 43]
, Washington, D.C., 1911; and, more recently, Karl G. Lorenz, "The Natchez of Southwest Mississippi," in Bonnie G. McEwan, ed., Indians of the Greater Southeast: Historical Archaeology and Ethnohistory
, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2000, pp. 142–77. On Chateaubriand’s understanding of the Natchez people and his historical accuracy, see Marc de Villiers, “La Louisiane de Chateaubriand,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes
16 (1924), pp. 125–67.
 Exceptions include Louis Léopold Boilly’s lithographic portraits of members of the Osage people of Missouri who traveled to France in 1827, two examples of which are in The Met: 83.2.904
. There is no evidence that Delacroix saw these visitors.
 For an overview of the convention of the Noble Savage, particularly as it relates to depictions of Atala
, see Delaney 1979, pp. 22ff, 63 n. 2.
 On Atala
and the broader subject of Native Americans in nineteenth-century French painting, see especially Delaney 1979 and Cabau 2014.
 “De certains peuples qui vivent ordinairement dans les bois, presque sans religion, sans loi, sans habitation fixe, et plutôt en bêtes qu'en hommes.” See Dictionnaires d’autrefois
, online resource consulted on April 8, 2019: https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/publicdicos/query?report=bibliography&head=sauvage&start=26&end=38.
 Soon after Delacroix began The Natchez
he would complete Rebecca and the Wounded Ivanhoe
, a subject from the Middle Ages based on a historical novel by Sir Walter Scott (The Met, 2019.141.9
 A chronology of work on Chios
, including the development of the composition prior to January 1824, can be traced largely through Delacroix’s entries in his Journal
; see Sérullaz 1963, pp. 28–31ff.
 Delacroix, Journal
, May 24 or 31, 1823; Hannoosh 2009, p. 102.
 An early study for Chios
is found on the verso of Louvre RF 9219 (see fig. 2). The chronology of the Chios
studies is not fully understood.
 The extended legs of the mother in The Natchez
are echoed in reverse in the figure of the naked, dying male Greek figure in Chios
 Mémoires du colonel Voutier sur la guerre actuelle des Grecs
, Paris, 1823, p. 251 n. 1.
 Delacroix, Journal
, January 12, 1824; Hannoosh 2009, vol. 1, pp. 112–13.
 The painting by Poussin was then, as now, in the Musée du Louvre.
 See Delacroix’s Journal
, Hannoosh 2009, pp. 283–85, as discussed by David O’Brien, Exiled in Modernity: Delacroix, Civilization, and Barbarism
, University Park, Penn., 2018, esp. p. 91.
 Letter to Charles Soulier, July 20, 1834. Eugene Delacroix, Selected Letters, 1813-1863
. Jean Stewart, trans., New York, 1971; rev. ed., Boston 2001, pp. 203–4.