Ariadne, with her "noble visage" and classical Greek allusions, harks back to a vanished golden age of good Indians that white America had wrongfully or rightfully superseded, depending on one's point of view. Yet at the same time, with her brazen, sensual nakedness and her unalert captivity in sleep, she might also be a reminder of the bad Indians of the present, who were stereotyped as overly sensual, immodest, and indolent. 26 In either case, the story--and with it the visual image--of a princess deceived, corrupted, and betrayed simply does not make good national mythology, the purpose of which is to instruct, inspire, and elicit public pride. This may be one of the reasons why the painting, despite its salient narrative and iconographic similarities to popular plays, fiction, and visual images that alluded explicitly to the American Indian, was so soon relegated to the margins of American art history. It was abandoned by a historiography that, with nationalistic purposes of its own, was not likely to care for the sad tale of racial betrayal and woe that Ariadne, when viewed in the context of such bedeviling social matters, calls to mind.
While we cannot prove that Vanderlyn Ariadne allegorizes the despoilment of the innocent native American by the devious white man from across the sea, a link between the painting and a society implicated in that despoilment seems clear. And although Vanderlyn's intentions are unknown, as is the early-nineteenth-century viewers' reception of the work, we are able to situate the painting within the powerfully determining context of nationalism and westward expansion, Indian wars, collective white guilt and apologetics, disdain for the Indians of the present, nostalgia for their now-extinct ancestors, and an active, often profitable Indian industry-- whether in academic painting, popular iconography, romantic fiction, sensationalist biography, or stage melodrama.
Placed within its historical context of national expansion and Indian crisis, Vanderlyn Ariadne no longer seems so puzzlingly nonpolitical compared to Marius and Jane McCrea. Here too the painter was giving pictorial form to a myth of timely import. Unfortunately for Vanderlyn, however, this latter myth of seduction and abandonment was not one a white American audience would have appreciated, for in this particular melodrama their role was that of betrayer rather than betrayed.
Revised by the author from Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Spring 1989). Reprinted by permission of the author and the National Museum of Art.
My thanks to the Stanford Humanities Center, where I wrote much of this essay, and to the American Council of Learned Societies for additional support.