A prisoner at the age of twenty, Chactas, the adopted son of a Christian man, is saved by Atala, a young Aboriginal woman who has been brought up in the Christian faith. Atala, whose mother had vowed unto God that her daughter would remain chaste, poisons herself and, as she lies dying in the arms of Chactas, asks him to convert. Inspired by the 1801 novel Atala, Or, The Love and Constancy of Two Savages in the Desert, by Chateaubriand, this bronze combines the stylistic features of classical sculpture with echoes of Christlike figures, and, through Chactas’s posture, allegorical representations of melancholy.
Drawing on the reinterpretation of classical antiquity in Florentine Renaissance works, Duret expresses the tension resulting from the conflict between body and mind. It was a favourite theme of the Romantics, just like that of the vanquished, the rebels, the desperate, and the despondent. The pose of the figure—sitting on a rock, elbow resting on knee, chin in hand—had been a stock one since the Renaissance. The exoticism of the work stems from a few picturesque details in the way of hairstyle and dress, the literary influence prevailing over the purely ethnographic aspect.