The Return of Christopher Columbus

What can the details of this painting by French artist Eugène Delacroix tell us about how the story of Columbus was often told in the mid-19th century?

The Return of Christopher Columbus (1839) by Eugène DelacroixThe Toledo Museum of Art

Columbus—Always A Hero?

The usually celebratory narrative of Columbus’ voyages as tales of discovery and nation-making has been reinforced by literature, popular culture, and visual art—like this painting by Delacroix. But his reputation has ebbed and flowed over the centuries.

An Overlooked Story

Many of Columbus’ contemporaries were appalled by the stories of his and his men’s brutality toward the Indigenous peoples of the so-called New World. His sponsor, King Ferdinand of Spain, even had him jailed briefly for his tyrannical behavior. 

Washington Irving

This painting was likely influenced by the 1828 fictional biography of Columbus written by American short-story writer Washington Irving. The story enshrined many familiar nationalistic myths about Columbus.

The Romantic notion of a singular, heroic adventurer further transformed the perception of Columbus. He became regarded as a man of genius and foresight who overcame adversity to change the world.

Closer Look

Let’s take a closer look at how Delacroix tells the story of Columbus.

Which One Is Columbus?

Did you know there are no surviving portraits of Columbus created during his lifetime? In Delacroix’s painting, it’s not entirely clear who represents him—is he the man standing at the bottom of the steps, the one climbing them, or someone else? What visual cues might help?

Religious Ambitions

Catholic rulers Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain sponsored Columbus’ trip and received his stolen gifts. They are positioned above everyone else in a place of honor. 

A Dominican friar in black and white is prominently placed, perhaps signifying the monarchs’ endorsement of the (often forced) spread of Catholicism to the Americas.

The Plunder

Strewn across the bottom of the stairs, plunder from the Americas is presented to the King and Queen of Spain. The heap of stolen gold, weapons, pelts, and small statues lose all context and meaning, instead exoticizing the Indigenous people and symbolizing their subjugation.

Stolen People

Captive Lucayans, the Indigenous people of the Bahamas archipelago, are presented to the monarchs as part of the plunder. Spotlighted, a Lucayan woman is posed in slipping clothing.

Brutality, murder, and the spread of European diseases by Columbus and his crew decimated the Lucayan population within a single generation. What does Delacroix’s portrayal of the Lucayan people reveal about how this history was framed?

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