The literary source for the subject of the present marble was a novel by Baron de la Motte-Fouqué, published in New York in 1823. Undine, or the Spirit of the Waters: A Melodramatic Romance, told the story of a water nymph who became enamored with a mortal. Rejected by her suitor after receiving a soul and thus becoming mortal herself, Undine ultimately caused his death. Yet Ives has not depicted the figure as a vengeful spirit, rather as a romantic victim.
"Around 1860 several editions [of Motte-Fouqué's book] appeared in America, indicating the book's popularity...the subject was one of mystery and enchantment, and Ives chose to represent a scene from Chapter XVIII: 'But an appearance, from the opening of the fountain, filled them with awe, as it rose like a white column of water; at first they imagined it to be a spouting fountain...until they perceived the form to be a pale female, veiled in white.' The body of Undine stretches upward, covered by the thin wet veil, which in itself was a display of sculptural virtuosity that dazzled Ives' contemporaries." (W. Craven, Sculpture in America, Cranbury, New Jersey, 1984 ed., p. 287)
Ives originally conceived this subject as a 49¼ inches high marble which was carved between 1855 and 1859 in an edition of five works. In 1880, he reworked the model and sculpted ten larger versions, of which the present work is an example. Another example of this larger version resides in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.