The White Woman and the Native Male Body in Vanderlyn's Death of Jane McCrea

By Sheardy, Robert, Jr. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The White Woman and the Native Male Body in Vanderlyn's Death of Jane McCrea


Sheardy, Robert, Jr., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Few images contribute as much to the picturing of American history as the representations of native peoples in the paintings of Benjamin West. To West, the Indian represented a timeless ideal of the natural man, a combination of innocence, intelligence, thoughtfulness and masculinity. He is thus depicted in The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, and the often reproduced Penn's Treaty with the Indians, 1772, with which most American schoolchildren are familiar. But there is another image of the native man, of thirty years, and a revolution later: John Vanderlyn's painting Death of Jane McCrea of 1804 (fig. 1 ). Clearly not the "innocent and noble savage, free from society's encumbering practices and living in harmony with nature," as Vivian Green Fryd has described West's images, the red men in Vanderlyn's painting are the epitome of unbridled violence (Fryd 80).1 Moreover, this violence is directed against a white woman, alone and undefended, in a wild and isolated forest. Despite the notoriety of West's elegant and sympathetic depictions of natives, known widely in the early Republic through etchings, it is this image, one of horror and unimaginable atrocity, that has dominated American visual and literary history since the early nineteenth century. Why was it Vanderlyn's representation of the native male that caught the imagination of white America rather than West's? What happened to the heroic red man between 1770 and 1800 to so greatly diminish the esteem in which he had been held, at least by some Americans? Further, why is it this image, as a threat to virtue and thus to civilization, that has proliferated over the last two centuries into a Hollywood stereotype that still persists today-in the character of Magua, for instance, in Michael Mann's 1992 film, The Last of the Mohicans?

One answer can be found in the 1826 novel on which that film was based and on the relationship between the novel and the painting. It was James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) who, through the medium of storytelling, marketed the model on which later representations of native peoples would rest, both in literature and in art.2 This essay will examine the relationship of Cooper's novel and Vanderlyn's painting to history, captivity literature, and the tradition of patriarchy that influenced the development of the American identity.

A Great Tory

Death of Jane McCrea was commissioned in 1803 by Joel Barlow (1754-1812) as an illustration for his epic poem The Columbiad, then in progress.' The painting was shown at the Paris Salon in September of 1804 and at the American Academy in New York in November the same year.4 It was the first visual interpretation of a story popular since first reported in the Connecticut Courant on August 5, 1777 (Namias 319).5 A girl had been reported shot and scalped. According to the Courant, "The girl was a sweet heart to an officer in the enemy's service, and a great Tory." The true events surrounding the death of the historical Jane McCrea (1752-1777) will never be known, so much has her story become enmeshed in the fabric of American mythology. Murdered on her secret way to meet her lover in the British army, herself a rebel to the pro-Revolutionary cause, Jane was nonetheless to become a symbol of the colonies themselves. She is here portrayed as an innocent and trusting girl, betrayed and abandoned, only to be slaughtered on her wedding day by the servants of the very king who had promised to love and protect her. Thus runs the patriotic subscript to the story, but underlying even that text is the discourse of dominance inherited from Europe and naturalized through history into the melting pot of American folklore.

Despite Republican sentiments in postRevolutionary America that independence should extend across gender lines, an underlying fear persisted that women, when given choices-who to marry, for instance-would not know how to make the right choices (Namias 121-28). Jane's independent nature was, after all, responsible for her own horrible death at the hands of men: the self-proclaimed protectors (and punishers) of women. …

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