Erastus Dow Palmer’s ‘The White Captive’

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Sep 272011

Erastus Dow Palmer's 'The White Captive', statue of nude woman standing

I’m still working up to reviewing Donna Dennis’ Licentious Gotham: Erotic Publishing and its Prosecution in Nineteenth-Century New York (Harvard University Press, 2009), but I want to post something on a sculpture mentioned in the book called The White Captive by Erastus Dow Palmer.

It portrays a youthful female figure who has been abducted from her sleep and held captive by savage Indians. Hands bound, and stripped of a nightgown hanging from a tree trunk, she turns her head away from the terror, and clenches her left fist, in defiance of imminent harm. Palmer avoided the often cold appearance of Italianate Neoclassical sculpture, in part by using for his model a local girl. He was particularly commended for his use of a “thoroughly American” subject that makes a conscious allusion to the endless skirmishes between Native Americans and white pioneers. It is these naturalistic and individualizing qualities that have, down through the years, earned such praise for Palmer’s sculpture.

According to this article, it was based on Hiram Power’s Greek Slave (previously discussed). True or not, there are definitely similarities in composition and posture. The main difference is that in The White Captive, the woman has her left arm behind her body, fist clenched in defiance. Like Power’s work, this was publicly exhibited to men, women and children.

What’s interesting here is that two different artists used a very similar image, a nude woman in distress, to address two different conflicts, i.e. Greece’s rebellion against Turkey and the various battles between Americans and First Nations peoples in the West. The latter conflict was also reflected in the captivity narrative genre. These, in turn, are related to the “held captive by Catholics” stories: virtue in distress from a threatening Other population.

As discussed previously, this kind of imagery is used in a wide variety of contexts and to refer to a wide variety of real-world conflicts. It is thus hardly surprising that these images percolated through the collective subconscious, via the Anna Freud process described earlier.

Oct 172008

Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave

One of the most popular works of sculpture of the 19th century was Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave, circa 1843.

To forestall any shock and dismay over the statue’s nudity, Powers helpfully included a pamphlet explaining how his work was to be interpreted, a short narrative sketch of virtue-in-distress.

Powers astutely explained, in the pamphlet that accompained his statue on its American tour in 1847, that his slave’s nudity was not her fault: she had been divested of her clothes by the lustful and impious Turks who put her on the auction block; thus her unwilling nakedness signified the purest form of the Ideal, the triumph of Christian virtue over sin. This sales pitch, aimed point-blank at Puritan sensibilities, worked so well that American Clergymen urged their congregations to go and see The Greek Slave.”

The humor magazine Punch has always been in touch with the British middle class psyche, and and it made a perhaps unwittingly clever satire of the sculpture when it ran a cartoon entitled, The Virginian Slave. Remember, the original statue and its replicas and miniatures were created when slavery was in full bloom in the American South, and people who demonstrated their sensitivity by clucking over The Greek Slave’s virtue-in-distress couldn’t care too much about the actual slaves across the Atlantic.

The Virginian Slave

Now, was this an example of “unconscious pornography”, that the Victorian American and British viewers needed a pious gloss to gaze upon a naked woman in chains without guilt? Or did they really look it in a different way than us cynical moderns? Or can the image be viewed in multiple ways?

I’m a little influenced by Harold Bloom’s idea of strong and weak misreading, or misprision. It could be that BDSM pornography is a misreading of earlier genres like the novel of sensibility and the Gothic.