Columbus and the Discovery of America

Columbus and the discovery of America is one of the most important subjects in history painting. Nearly in all nations where history paintings were produced there are normally some works dedicated to that event, which was considered by many to be the beginning of modern history.

From the great mass - probably there are more than 1,000 paintings, frescoes, engravings and illustrations - I want to focus on the most famous and using these examples try to explain how this subject was interpreted, what changed and what were the primary interests of the artists and their audience.

Sir David Wilkie: Columbus in the Convent of La Rábida (1834)

Wilkie: Columbus in the Convent of La Rábida The British painter shows "Christopher Columbus in the Convent of La Rábida Explaining His Intended Voyage". It's a typical early 19th century painting, showing the hero in a dramatically illuminated room.

Eduardo Cano de la Peña: Columbus in the Convent of La Rábida (1856)

Cano: Columbus in the Convent of La Rábida The technically better done painting by the Spaniard Eduardo Cano de la Peña shows the same scene. Again Columbus' little son is present, while he himself is pointing dramatically on the maps and in the distance, probably to America. Because these gestures in a real situation would made no sense at all they can only be understood symbolically.

Peter Frederick Rothermel and Eugène Devéria: Columbus Before the Queen

Rothermel: Columbus before the queen Deveria: Columbus before the queen

The American Peter Frederick Rothermel and the Frenchman Eugène Devéria show both Columbus before Queen Isabella. Despite the paintings are very similar, they refer to different historic meetings: on Rothermel's Columbus (1844) he is still advertising his project, and on Devéria's (1861) he has already returned with his trophies from America. They resemble each other especially in the depiction of the Queen and the use of the light. Isabella appears as the patroness of the discoveries, as the saint, the patron saint and is also illuminated accordingly.

Václav Brožík: Columbus soliciting aid of Isabella (1884)

Brozik: Columbus Queen Isabella The Czech painter Václav Brožík also shows Columbus before the Queen, but in a completely different arrangement. Columbus declaims like a bad actor and indicating once again to India or America. On the table are Isabella's jewels, with which only in the legend was paid for the expedition.

William Henry Powell: Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca (1847)

Powell: Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca On the painting by the American William Henry Powell Columbus is defending his thesis before the Council in Salamnca. He shows self-confident a map, while the narrow-minded Cardinal is relying on a book, probably the Bible. Of course, the light is once again used to great effect, especially to support the hero.

Nicolò Barabino - Columbus at the High Court of Salamanca

Barabino: Columbus Before the Council of Salamanca The Italian Nicolò Barabino shows the same discussion, but much less spectacular, which looks at least much more realistic.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze: Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria (1855)

Leutze: Columbus on the deck of the Santa Maria The German-American Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze depicts the moment of the departure. Leutze painted a whole series of Columbus, most of them at the academy in Düsseldorf. The dramatic unnatural arrangement of the persons and the exaggerated gestures like on some stage can easily be interpreted as a typical product of European history painting as it was taught at the academies.

Ricardo Balaca y Canseco: Columbus taking leave of the prior

Balaca y Canseco: Columbus taking leave The Spanish painter Ricardo Balaca y Canseco shows also the touching farewell scenery, a declamatory Columbus and all other persons are positioned very effectively. Nevertheless, he uses this resources much more economically than Leutze, why the paintings looks natural.

Carl Theodor von Piloty: Christopher Columbus (1865)

Piloty: Christopher Columbus One of the very few academic paintings showing Columbus as a sailor, so to speak in his proper element, is that by the German history painter Carl Theodor von Piloty. But you perceive in an instant that even Piloty hadn't any particular interest in seafaring. He shows a searcher, a genius, it could almost be a Kepler or a Faust in his study.

Leutze and Balaca: Columbus before the Catholic Monarchs

Leutze: Columbus before the Catholic Monarchs Balaca: Columbus before the Catholic Monarchs

The paintings by Leutze and Balaca show Columbus at the court before the Catholic monarchs. Once again, as a supplicant before his voyage and then after his triumphant return. However you recognize easily the usual positions, arrangements and accessories: the map of the explorer to come and the trophies of his exploits. The scene at the royal court provided the two artists also with abundant opportunity to demonstrate their skills in historical details and persons.

Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín and John Vanderlyn: The First Landing of Columbus

Pubela: The First Landing of Columbus Vanderlyn: The First Landing of Columbus

Only few times the artificial construction of the Columbus-paintings reveals itself so clearly like in the two pieces by the Spaniard Dióscoro Teófilo Puebla Tolín - The First Landing of Christopher Columbus in America (1862) - and the American John Vanderlyn - Columbus Landing at Guanahani, 1492 (1837-47), which was commissioned by the Congress in June 1836 for the Capitol Rotunda.

The groups are arranged quite similar. Despite both paintings are well done it's obvious how the models had been placed in front of a backdrop in the studio There is the mandatory cross in the center, the waving flags, Columbus claims with the sword possession of the discovered land raising his eyes to the sky - meaning to god. There are some former desperate sailors kissing the earth and some gaping natives, and all is illuminated by the divine light from above. All is well positioned like by a stage director in the opera for the moment when they all will start to sing.

But the paintings illustrate also one of the fundamental problems of history painting. All artists of any nationality are focused on the genius of Columbus - on both paintings dressed in red in the center. The actual historical vent, the discovery of the New World is never shown, it was beyond the imagination.

Albert Bierstadt: The Landing Of Columbus (1892)

Bierstadt: The Landing Of Columbus So it is probably no coincidence that a new perspective - unfamiliar to European or European trained Salon painters - came just from an American landscape painter. Albert Bierstadt was like Leutze of German origin and had studied like this one in Düseldorf, but later he undertook extensive travels in North America, where he then became famous for his monumental landscape paintings. He was one of the most prominent members of the so called Hudson River School.

Therefore he didn't focus on the usual Columbus surrounded by his traditional costume group. Bierstadt painted the New World like an enormous, mysterious gate compared to which the newcomers seem tiny and helpless. Though this painting is constructed like all the others it was in my humble opinion a great step forward.

José Garnelo y Alda and Jean Leon Gerome Ferris: The Landing Of Columbus

Garnelo: The Landing Of Columbus Gerome Ferris: The Landing Of Columbus

The great achievement of Bierstadt become even more evident if it's compared to others with the some subject from the end of the century like that by the Spanish painter José Garnelo y Alda "The disembarkation of Christopher Colombus on the Island of Guanahani in 1492" (c.1890) and that by the American Jean Leon Gerome Ferris "Kolumbus in San Salvador".

Although both resemble fairly the paintings by Puebla Tolin and Vanderlyn, they show also the evolution of history painting at the end of the 19th century. Both artists positioned the persons in a more "natural" way, in addition they dedicate great efforts to smaller details like weapons, clothing and exotic landscape, all with the intention to let the scenery look realistic.

Many history painters in that time were great collectors of arms, chainmail and antique garbs. Nevertheless, the genre was then already beyond saving. Once the audience had started to see through the tricks it didn't help much to improve the backdrop and the costumes.