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Red mothers and white milk: maternal lactation and American Indians in post-revolutionary France.

Between 1793-1800, the seven-year period in which the influential French author Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand wrote his immensely popular New World romance Atala, Napoleon rose to power within France. These were the years of the Haitian Revolution, and the beginning of French colonial ambitions in Egypt. As slave rebellions cost the lives of countless French soldiers in the Caribbean, Parisians were decorating their homes with American Indian-patterned wallpaper, eating off of Indian-printed plates and watching Indian-themed plays. More than thirty years later, Delacroix's painting Les Natchez, inspired by that romantic novella, was completed and exhibited shortly after his government-sponsored colonizing voyages to Morocco. (1) It seems that France's harsh suppression of slave revolt and brutal colonial expansion in North Africa were parallel to a striking domestic interest in the "dying" culture and bodies of the American Indians. Why did domestic revolution and imperial expansion demand a parallel retreat backwards in the French national imagination? What function did the Indian, figure of France's great lost hope of a colonial empire in the West, play in constructing a national and imperial identity in post-revolutionary France? To begin to address these questions, I have singled out the trope of motherhood, and particularly of breastfeeding, as central to questions of racial and national identity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. The themes of birth and of nursing not only link the two art works mentioned above; they also link metropole and colony, and unite pre- and post-revolutionary French history. This essay will reveal the ways in which the nation of France, in the decades after the Revolution, negotiated a space for itself chronologically, culturally, and racially through representations and manipulations of the body of the American Indian.

Historically, European discussion of the New World had evaluated both land and people in direct reference to their fecundity. European writers from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries struggled to come to terms with the dual potentials of this "virgin" land: glorious fertility or immature sterility. On the one hand, a discourse of Indian impotence and infertility was employed to justify expansion, expulsion, and systematic annihilation. On the other hand, scientists and explorers singled out the female Indian as the "perfect mother," superior in her parenting practices to mothers in the Old World. The close bonds between Indian mother and her papoose struck every European observer, who would simultaneously and paradoxically comment on the Indians' reputed lack of progeny, understood as a sign of unavoidable extinction. In particular the Indian woman's extraordinarily long period of breastfeeding imprinted itself upon the minds of eagerly watching Europeans, who implicitly and explicitly envied the infant its constant access to the Indian breast. Stories and paintings showed in sensual detail both nursing Indian women and Indian-grieving rituals for dead children, frequently depicting mothers tending the graves of their infants by watering the funeral mound with their overflowing breasts. The imperial irony of the colonizer's need for Indian breast milk (Indian maternity nourishing the Indians' oppressor) is most shockingly evident in the numerous renderings of the illness of famed Spanish traveler, historian, and priest Bartolome de Las Casas. Mortally struck with disease, he realized that his life could only be restored by the milk of a lactating Indian girl. (2) According to the legend, there were plenty of volunteers; husbands donated their own wives' breasts, vying for the honor of saving the priest's life. Thus, in this particularly racist fantasy, Indian milk nourishes White men rather than native babies. This trope was in no way unusual, as most European men writing about American Indians focused much interest on Indian sexual habits, birth, and child-rearing. I propose that these stereotypes and myths about the American Indian intersected with a uniquely French history of motherhood and nationhood to produce a nexus of racialized and sexualized imagery both producing and produced by cultural products like Atala and Les Natchez.

France was more dependent on wet nurses than other European countries. As Patrick Sussman carefully traces in his book Selling Mothers' Milk, while elsewhere in Europe modernity was associated with the demise of wet-nursing, the majority of French women continued to send their babies away to be nursed throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (7). Up to the Revolution, between 90%-95% percent of the infant population of urban areas was sent away to be nursed, and even after the Revolution over three quarters of French babies were cared for by a wet nurse (110-13). (3) In public discourse, the dissolute society mother who refused to nurse her child and the greedy, potentially whorish wet nurse both represented society's degeneracy, and in turn France's failings as a nation. The key issue in these debates was neither the quality of maternal care nor the principle of wet-nursing; it was the question of milk. The vital importance of breast milk for the moral and physical well-being of the infant allowed breast milk to function as a synecdochal substitute for childrearing and child development, and thus ultimately for the future of the nation. At the time of the Enlightenment, these discussions became racialized. From Rousseau onward, the pure milk of noble savages was contrasted with the "polluted" milk of whorish French wet nurses.

During the French Revolution, rather than associating good milk with a fertile savagery that was opposed to sterile civilization, pure milk became a marker of a healthy French nationhood. Revolutionary iconography frequently represented the female breast, either itself gushing with milk or suggesting lactation in its fetishized engorgement. By shifting focus from the need for a good wet nurse to the need for maternal breast milk--"the mother who has not nursed her baby ceases to be a mother in the eyes of the fatherland" (Saint-Just in Jacobus 61)--Revolutionary rhetoric causally linked good motherhood with good nationhood, and hence with the essence of Frenchness. For the duration of the Revolution both Radicals and Royalists claimed the nursing mother as their own; she served as a sign of conservative virtue and traditional purity, or as a symbol of revolutionary difference, as the source of an entirely new nation. In both cases she was purely French, and her body worked to define the country. When the Revolution ended, the assumption has been that that the mother quietly lost her political relevance. Indeed the turn of the century seems to mark a disappearance of the breast from public discourse, or at least a shift in symbolic value--from icon of maternity to object of erotic desire. (4) Instead Napoleon's launching of a vast colonial enterprise, and his determination to make the new France a new imperial France, served as the important, and certainly more public, discourse of community and nationhood. Nonetheless, examining objects of cultural production reveals that maternity remained an important site of anxiety for post-revolutionary France. And, hearkening back to the pre-revolutionary idealization of the Indian mother, these debates were shifted away from France, and onto the breasts of the women of New World.

As one of the foundational texts in this trajectory, I would like to examine Chateaubriand's novella Atala, published in 1801 and generally acknowledged as the first great French novel of the post-revolutionary period. Taking Paris by storm, the book's immediate and unprecedented popularity ensured that "for decades the story was a cultural totem for a wide spectrum of French society" (Waller 158). In the context of this paper, I propose that this tale of Indian virginity and death is far more than simply a romantic and exotic adventure. When examined as a story of race and gender relations, Atala reveals itself to be mired in a landscape of racial and national conflict, written at a time when French borders and French selfhood were being continuously redefined and renegotiated. The text, the story of the Indian Chactas and his ill-fated love for the half-breed maiden Atala, is a bizarre narrative of Indian maternity that reveals Chateaubriand's anxieties over the vitality, purity, and virility of the new, post-revolutionary French body. With its arousing story line and language, the story pulls upon the erotic charge implicit in the mother's breast that had condensed and created a French masculine nationalism during the Revolution. Written out of fear of and hatred toward the Revolution, however, Atala reinterpreted the figure of the desirable and maternal Indian squaw. For the famously anti-Revolutionary Chateaubriand, to whom such horrors as the revolt in Haiti and the Louisiana Purchase sounded the final death knoll for the once-great but now degenerate French empire, American Indian motherhood, rather than providing for the continuation of white race (as in the story of Las Casas) signaled the demasculinization and imminent extinction of an entire people/nation.

Bizarrely, Atala is a sex story about mothers and their infants, rather than a man and a woman. From his first glimpse of the beautifully virginal Atala, Chactas, the noble Indian, is transformed into a babe in arms: "In an instant, a woman's gaze had changed all my wishes, my intentions, my thoughts.... I had suddenly become a sort of child, incapable of doing anything to remove myself from the ills that awaited me; I was rather in need of someone to take care of feeding me and putting me to sleep" (Chateaubriand 13-14). Surrendering to this self-imposed infantilization, the Indian warrior recognizes his desire for Atala as the craving of a baby for its milk, and his illicit wish is satisfied when she rescues/nurses him "at the hour at which the young Indian bride, newly a mother, wakes suddenly in the night, thinking to hear the crying of her firstborn, who begs sweet nourishment" (Chateaubriand 21). Echoing Chateaubriand's fear of national decay, the Indian's twin desires to suck and suckle on Atala's breast are voiced in an ominous language of death. Grotesquely, the sight of Indian mothers mourning at the grave of their dead infants by squeezing their breast milk onto the dirt is a scene of such beauty that the author is prompted to espouse: "[H]appy those who die in the cradle, they have known nothing but the kisses and smiles of a mother" (Chateaubriand 15). Embodying this perversely intertwined cycle of life and death, the mulatto virgin Atala's birth was simultaneously her death sentence, as she has always known that "my sad fate began almost before I saw the light ... to save my life, my mother made a vow ... fatal vow which hurries me to the grave" (Chateaubriand 41).

Atala must die--and what is more, her death begins a chain of sterility. Chactas, ravaged by grief, never has children, vowing like his beloved to die a virgin. Indeed, extinction, not ill-fated romance, is the final horror of Chateaubriand's grim story, whose central narrative of the love between Atala and Chactas is framed within a larger narrative of White-Indian interactions. The novel does not end with the tragic but noble suicide of Atala, but rather with an epilogue of such unexpected horror that most modern commentators choose to ignore it. The conclusion of this Indian epic is the anonymous narrator's gaze upon the body of "the last Natchez" (her entire tribe having been massacred by French and British soldiers) mourning the dead baby cradled in her arms. Disturbingly, this nameless mother's own voice sounds her final verdict, as her very victimization unwittingly made her the murderer of her son: "Soured by grief, my milk brought death to my child" (Chateaubriand 48). And, as she knows all too well, with the death of her child, so too will end her people. This, the final scene of Atala, is distinctly absent from the myriad visual, theatrical, and musical renderings of the story that proliferated in France during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. In fact, among all the paintings, embroideries, dishware, sculpture, and so on that illustrated the novella, only one major artist perceived this scene of grieving motherhood (rather than the pseudo-erotic love between Chactas and Atala) as central to Chateaubriand's narrative. This artist was Delacroix, and the painting, Les Natchez (see figure 1), enjoyed a singularly convoluted production and reception that mark it as unique both within Delacroix's body of work, and within the cultural products of French imperialism. By examining this painting (a rare Delacroix image of Indians, and the only extant image from Atala that depicts neither of the novel's two main characters) I argue that questions of maternity and fertility, and the racialized body of the American Indian, were as central to constructing a new imperial identity for France in the 1830s as they had been for struggling with the aftermath of the Revolution at the turn of the century.

This painting demands renewed critical interest if only because of its odd location within Delacroix's oeuvre. The temperamental artist designed and began the canvas for Les Natchez in 1824, only to put it aside for more than ten years, finally completing and exhibiting it in 1835. These dates locate the painting between two very different phases of Delacroix's diverse artistic production, phases separated by his life-changing trip to Morocco and Algeria in 1832 as an employee of the colonial government. (5) The painting was originally put aside in order to allow Delacroix to complete Scenes from the Massacres at Scio, one of his more controversial paintings and one that also depicts themes of racialized death and tragic motherhood. Indeed, the two paintings were worked on simultaneously for much of the year. With the completion of Scio however in 1824, Delacroix did not return to "his savages," as he called them in his journal (Johnson 79). It took more than a decade, and a trip to the Orient, for him to finish the canvas. This lengthy process of production evidences both Delacroix's interest in and discomfort with the American Indian; it also identifies the Indian as central to Delacroix's racial and sexual imagination and, in turn, to the national imagination of post-Napoleonic France. The powerful canvas of Les Natchez reworks Chateaubriand's original text, bearing testament to the complexities of constructing national identity at the moment of empire-building. The most striking discrepancy between text and image is Delacroix's shift in focus from mother-child to father-child relationships, and by choosing to show a scene of Indian birth rather than Indian death (a birth draped, no less, in the colors of the French tricolor) Delacroix performs an important intervention in the original story of Atala. Interestingly, commentators have insistently misread this aspect of the painting: the image has been falsely titled The Last of the Natchez, and it has been described as an Indian couple grieving its stillborn child. (6) Indeed, while attention has generally been focused on the infant, either as source of parental love or as potential or actual death, I would argue that it is the mother here who occupies a space of liminality, her racial identity, her societal function, and her vitality placed into question. While father and son form a tight oval of intertwined bodies, wrapped up both literally in bright drapery and figuratively in a mantle of tenderness and intimacy, the mother, lying braced against a rough hillside, is cut off from inclusion in this family unit. The father's body not only turns away from her exhausted form, but his sheltering arms actually cut the baby off from the mother's field of vision. Devoid of any obvious markers of Indianness (in contrast her lover is wearing large earrings and has an elaborate hairpiece topped off with several feathers) both her body and her posture relegate her to the margins of the painting's narrative. The dark blue cloth covering her lower extremities does not, like the garments of the males, define a protective and bounded space; instead it works to erase her lower body, the space of narrative action.

While in the imagination of Chateaubriand exotic Indian mothers kill their babies with grief and then mourn them with excessive lactation, for Delacroix noticeably flat-chested and European-looking women expire as they give life. Given Delacroix's own personal and artistic involvement in French colonial rule in North Africa and the Middle East, it is necessary to read Les Natchez's questioning of the relationship between potency and death as implicated in France's imperial and racial identity. Chateaubriand's Atala was one of the first texts to ponder these connections explicitly; the Indian was, in its maternal excessiveness and its inevitable extinction, the ideal body to reflect anti-Revolutionary fear and anxieties over national fertility. In the end, mother kills child and a great race dies forever. Born into the next generation of French artists, Delacroix was also drawn to the American Indian. However, his interpretation of Chateaubriand's novel, and his struggle with the completion of the painting, evidence a discomfort with and instability in this desire. His abandonment and subsequent return to the dying Indian mother and her tender husband frame the artist's gradual development of an aesthetic and political colonial identity. They also however point to the weaknesses and ruptures in that identity. While the milk-filled breasts of the Red Mother symbolized the tragic future and national degeneration of the Revolution for the conservative noble man, thirty years later the dying body of an Indian mother evoked a young artist's troubled vision of French potency and international power in an age of colonial expansion. Taken together, these two canonical artworks powerfully illustrate the richness and complexity of the relationship between cultural representation and political activity, and the long trajectory of racialized and sexualized national fantasy.


Chateaubriand, Francois-Rene de. Atala and Rene. Trans. Rayner Heppenstall. London: Oxford UP, 1963.

Jacobus, Mary. "Incorruptible Milk: Breast-feeding and the French Revolution." Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution. Ed. Sara Melzer and Leslie Rabine. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992. 54-75.

Johnson, Lee. The Paintings of Eugene Delacroix: A Critical Catalogue 1816-183. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1981.

Lajer-Burcharth, Ewa. Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after The Terror. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

Porterfield, Todd. The Allure of Empire: Art in the Service of French Imperialism, 1798-1836. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Sussman, George Selling Mothers' Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France 1715-1914. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1982.

Waller, Margaret. "Being Rend, Buying Atala: Alienated Subjects and Decorative Objects in Post-revolutionary France." Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution. 157-77.






(1) For this first trip to the Orient, the artist functioned as a direct extension of the colonial government sent alongside diplomats in order to discourage protest among the indigenous peoples and, as in Bonaparte's project of cultural cataloguing during his Egypt campaign, both to colonize the Other by painting it, and to bring the Orient back to France.

(2) The many French painters who depicted this and other popular images of Indian women breastfeeding included Louis Hersent, Lemire, Gustave Moreau, and Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier.

(3) Sussman offers an exhaustive statistical analysis of this bizarre phenomenon. His explanation however is primarily economic: France continued to wet-nurse because in France, unlike in other countries, wet-nursing was not a prerogative of the wealthy but a necessity of the working poor, a population whose size increased over time in France. I would generally emphasize the cultural and personal aspects of breastfeeding and wet nursing, rather than the simply economic ones. At the least one can certainly say that breast-feeding had been and continued to be a hot topic in France far longer than in its neighboring countries.

(4) Eve Lacher-Burkhardt's book Necklines is a complement to this very abridged discussion of the function of the breast in the French post-revolutionary public sphere. As necklines dropped and cleavage poured out into the streets of Paris, real breasts became ever more visible. I would argue that this is an aspect of precisely the depoliticization of the breast that I am talking about. Breasts became individual, sexual, and commodified, while their function as a potent political symbol became increasingly irrelevant.

(5) For this first trip to the Orient, the artist functioned as a direct extension of the colonial government, sent alongside diplomats in order to discourage protest among the indigenous peoples and, as in Bonaparte's project of cultural cataloguing during his Egypt campaign, both to colonize the Other by painting it, and to bring the Orient hack to France. (For more information on the role of French colonialism in the Orient for the development of Delacroix, see Porterfield, esp. 117-23.)

(6) See Johnson for a bibliography on the painting, and a summary of the debates surrounding its name.
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Author:Weinreb, Alice
Publication:West Virginia University Philological Papers
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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