"Atala" was presented at the 1808 Paris Salon along with another canvas of the same subject: Anne-Louis Girodet’s Burial of Atala, now found in The Louvre. These artworks are proof of how popular François-René de Chateubriand’s 1801 Atala was with artists.
Both paintings focus on the most dramatic moment in Chateaubriand’s work, revolving around the tragic love story between two Louisiana Indians: Atala and Chactas. It is the elderly Chactas who recalls his sad story, sharing it with the young Frenchman René.
Chactas is an Indian raised and educated by Spanish colonists. After spending many years learning and living with the settlers, he feels a profound call to return to nature and begins to look for a life that is better for him. He is captured by an enemy tribe and meets beautiful Atala, a Christian Indian. A fiery passion is born between the two and they decide to flee together into the forest. For unknown reasons, however, Atala does not give herself to Chactas and we only learn why when the two lovers meet in the forest with the missionary, Father Aubry. Atala’s mother made a vow to the Virgin Mary that if she bore a healthy daughter despite the difficult pregnancy, the girl would remain chaste. Terrified she might break her mother’s vow, Atala takes poison and dies to avoid giving in to the temptation of her love for Chactas.
The scene depicted by Lordon (1780–1838) shows the last moments of Atala’s life, receiving Communion from the hermit, Father Aubry, while Chactas, overwhelmed with despair, lovingly supports her body.
The exotic nocturnal setting of the scene, lit by the full moon dominating the background and the strong emotional content, and the theme of the contrast between love and religion all appear completely innovative with respect to the subjects of ancient history typical of Neoclassical culture. They introduce an unprecedented and early expression of Romantic taste in Giovanni Battista Sommariva’s collection, anticipating the purchase of The Kiss by Francesco Hayez (1823), also still found in the Villa Carlotta museum.