Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

3
Ariadne and the Indians

Vanderlyn's Neoclassical Princess, Racial Seduction, and the Melodrama of Abandonment

DAVID M. LUBIN

In his provocative discussion of this well-known painting, David Lubin takes issue with the premise that Vanderlyn's conventional image of the classicized female nude exists in a privileged space of universal-- and therefore apolitical--meaning. As a representation of an eroticized female body positioned in the domain of nature, Ariadne can be identified with a familiar archetype in European painting. But, as Lubin argues, this association does not preclude readings of the work in terms of issues relevant to its specifically American social and historical context.

Lubin links the subject of the painting to personifications of the American republic as an Indian princess and, later, a classical goddess, and to the revival in America of melodrama as a popular art form. He then suggests a possible understanding of the legend of Pocahontas as an American variant of the Ariadne myth, with its attendant themes of seduction and abandonment. Lubin argues for the existence of a powerful political subtext generated by unacknowledged guilt and anxiety over the betrayal, and subsequent degradation, of Native American peoples in the interest of nation-building.

Art historians have tended to regard John Vanderlyn's ( 1775- 1852) Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos as a painting that, while technically proficient, is cold and derivative--a formula hybrid of romanticism and neoclassicism that depicts ardor without possessing or generating any of its own [1]. The title's allusion to classical mythology appears to be little more than a ruse at drumming up cultural validity for a slickly provocative representation, life-sized and leering, of a curvaceous naked woman.

Despite the painting's lush romanticism, sensational voyeurism, and stagy contrivance, however, we can discern in Ariadne more meaning than meets the eye. By considering the work in terms of the social and political history of its era, we will find its significance increase and its alleged vacuity diminish if not entirely disappear. In fact, Ariadne resonates with several critical themes from the early nineteenth century, among them the volatile relationship in early America between whites and Indians. Certainly in the Madisonian years of westward expansion, when Vanderlyn was painting Ariadne, no single question was more publicly troubling than how the new American republic was to maintain its high moral ground and yet respond, with the fullest economic and military advantage, to the indige-

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