The work depicts Columbus landing in the New World on the island of Guanahani (in today's Bahama Archipelago), and the new lands being taken over in the name of the Spanish monarchs on October 12, 1492. The artist was inspired by descriptions found in Columbus's renowned journal, but modified certain aspects, including dressing the native people (whereas the journal states that they went about naked). The cross is a reference to Christianity and the evangelizing work carried out in the New World. The flags of Castile reinforce the idea of allegiance to the kingdom and Columbus' stature as an envoy of the monarchs.
There was a boom in history painting in Spain between 1850 and 1880 due to the historicism of institutions and official powers at the time. The Catholic Monarchs, the colonization of the Americas, and various wars were some of the themes represented in these works, which were displayed at National Exhibitions before being acquired by the state. This painting was shown at the 1892 International Exhibition in Madrid to coincide with the fourth centenary of the discovery of the Americas. Several changes were made to the original, possibly after some criticism was received, and it was then awarded a prize at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.
José Garnelo y Alda was an Andalusian painter who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. He was part of the second generation of history painters who focused on similar themes but in a more contemporary language, with plenty of detail, meticulous representation of clothing, the archaeological study of objects, and a preference for outdoor scenes.