Unlike his contemporaries, John Vanderlyn chose Paris over London, becoming the first American artist to study in France - and the first to exhibit at the Salon, where he won a medal in 1804 for "The Death of Jane McCrea" (Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford, Connecticut). Nevertheless, Vanderlyn had deep native artistic roots: his grandfather, Pierce Vanderlyn was a prominent portraitist in the Hudson River Valley. He also briefly studied with Gilbert Stuart, the finest portraitist in the young United States.
The artist's masterpiece, "Ariadne" was one of the most advanced paintings of its day - not to mention being one of the first nudes ever exhibited in this country. The sensual portrayal of a reluctant female recalls the High Renaissance Venuses of Giorgione and Titian. The accomplished sculptural treatment of the body and the precise, tightly finished brushwork also show Vanderlyn's mastery of the French academic tradition. Daughter of King Minos of Crete, Ariadne betrayed her family to help the Athenian prince Theseus slay the Minotaur, only to be abandoned by her faithless lover on the island of Naxos. Although Vanderlyn represents Ariadne before she became aware of her plight, educated viewers would know the story had a happy ending; captivated by the beauty of the sleeping princess, Dionysus, god of wine, made her his bride.