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     Columbus Before the Queen  (1844)

              by Peter F. Rothermel

                       Jennifer Marshall
                  Lehigh University

For the result of cause and effect narrative history is to give the impression that events unfold according to a logic of their own. They refer neither to the place, nor to the people.  Imperial history's mythical lineage of heroes is the consequence of its theatrical assumption that, in reality, historical individuals are actors, fulfilling a higher destiny.  (Paul Carter, "Spatial History")

Dear Christopher Columbus,

I think your idea is very good.  The voyage may be tricky, but you'll probably be able to sail to the Indies and back in a shorter time than the rest of the paths.  Although, it might not work.   I hope you have fun.
                                                                                         Queen Isabella

(From the Gilbert Linkous Elementary School Columbus Project )

    Students of the life and legacy of Christopher Columbus inevitably come to realize that he "is both one of the world's best-known and least-understood historical figures.  His deeds are instantly recognized, but, even after centuries of investigation, his personality, motives, and values remain unclear" (McGovern 5).  Certainly, one of the facets of Columbus's life and adventures that consistently provokes speculation and variable interpretations is the relationship between the explorer and his patrons, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain.  A thorough analysis of the Columbus juggernaut might logically begin with the question of motive.  What was his agenda, his driving inspiration?  What was that (or those) of the Spanish monarchs?  In mid-19th century America, artists such as Peter F. Rothermel posited calculated answers to these and other questions surrounding the "discovery" of the "New World" and the birth of America as a nation.

    In America, the mid-19th century was a time of sweeping religious doubt, a time when the "secular notion of progress" began to substitute for spiritual faith as a means of providing comfort and a sense of unified purpose to the inhabitants of a young, developing country.  It was the "moment" of westward expansion.  It was a time when America floundered in search of a national mythology that could not only account for and rationalize the violence of the frontier life, but that could "establish a privileged bloodline for America" (Truettner viii).  Americans sought a means of understanding their own relentless efforts at progress--which were attended by "economic disasters, mining busts, droughts, depredations of the land, decimation of the buffalo herds, and near obliteration of Indian cultures" (Truettner viii)--as "a given in the development of organism, race, society, and nation" (Truettner ix).  American artists came forward to provide that means.  Works of art were produced to perpetuate the belief in westward expansion as a vehicle to serve "the larger purposes of taming the wilderness, Christianizing the savages, or spreading the gospel of democracy and freedom.  This was construed as an American destiny made manifest through art, drawing a veil over aspects of the frontier life that were unsavory or equivocal or simply mundane" (Truettner viii).  Rothermel's Columbus Before the Queen is an example of what Elizabeth Broun calls "art [as a] masterful mediator between the alarming facts of history and the loudly proclaimed ideals of progress" (qtd. in Truettner ix).  Rothermel's work was one of many that sought to rationalize American westward expansion by linking it to the ethics of scientific progress and Christian imperialism ostensibly championed by the discoverers of the New World.

    Peter Frederick Rothermel (1817-1895) was born in Nescopeck, Pennsylvania .  He developed a reputation for portraiture, and later as a historical painter, and as "one of the greatest colorists this country has ever produced" (Opitz 795).  His successful career in Philadelphia included the Vice Presidency of the Artists' Fund Society (1844) and the Directorship of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1847-55).  Among Rothermel's most noted works are Patrick Henry before the Virginia House of Burgesses (1852), and "the colossal picture of the Battle of Gettysburg, ordered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania, and finished in 1871" (Opitz 795).  It was a Philadelphia banker named Edward S. Whelen who commissioned Columbus Before the Queen in 1842.

    In order to develop his visual conception of the founding of the New World, Rothermel turned for inspiration to Washington Irving's biography The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, published in 1828.   Truettner maintains that Rothermel's scene is "more or less taken from" Irving's biography (57), which Claudia Bushman calls "the first full-scale, exclusively Columbian biography produced in English, establishing the benevolent, wise, and heroic Columbus for a wide American reading audience" (107).  Bushman suggests that even Columbus himself could not have done a better job  glorifying  his  life and adventures.  Columbus, she says, "owes his favored position in the United States to this long and enthusiastic" work.

    Rothermel' choice confirms Broun's assertion that "artists [in the mid-19th century] did not work in isolation but were part of a wider movement of writers and thinkers in many disciplines and countries, all transfixed by the idea of progress" (Truettner viii).  Bushman affirms that "paintings, sculpture, tales, poems, pageants, and plays were inspired by [Irving's] book" (111).  Rothermel's work, then, derived from a narrative of Columbus's life and times that exponentially enhanced and confirmed the noble agendas of progress and the advancement of Christianity that were claimed by the explorer himself in his own journals.

    Columbus Before the Queen "ostensibly portrays the exchange between Isabella and the future explorer that at least figuratively gave birth to America" (Truettner 57).  The painting is decidedly mystical in nature; it is dimly colored, and the rays of light coming down from above reach only Isabella, and, to a lesser extent, Columbus.  "Isabella stands before her throne . . . in a manner reminiscent of a seventeenth-century saint.   Light floods down on her to emphasize her elevated status. Columbus, meanwhile, is delicately profiled against the mysterious gloom of the cathedral background, which forms a giant halo around his head" (Truettner 58).  Clearly, she bears divine light and truth, and he is a worthy receptor of the same.  His "mission was to carry divine authority from the Old World to the New" (Truettner 58).

    Rothermel's depiction posits the desire to spread Christianity as the shared motive that inspired Columbus and Isabella.  In a letter sent in 1892 to the bishops of Spain, Italy, and North and South America, Pope Leo XIII reinforced this interpretation, saying that Columbus "by his enterprise and efforts has not sought for anything else than the glory and development of the Christian religion" (Bender 36).  Truettner explains, however, that "the articles of agreement drawn up between Ferdinand and Columbus . . . say nothing about religion [or] a missionary objective . . . they read more like a corporate document" (58). Certainly, the Capitulations of Santa Fe, the agreement signed between Columbus and Isabella on April 17, 1492, calls into question Rothermel's implication that Columbus's motives were solely spiritual in nature:

" Firstly, that Your Highnesses, as actual Lords of the said Oceans, appoint from this date the said Don Cristobal Colon to be your admiral in all those islands and mainlands which by his activity and industry shall be discoveredItem, that of all and every kind of merchandise, whether pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices, and other objects and merchandise whatsoever,which may be bought, bartered, discovered, acquired and obtained within the limits of said Admiralty, Your Highnesses grant from now henceforth to the said Don Cristobal, and will that he may have and take for himself, the tenth part of the whole " (Audience at the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella).

    The interest of the royal treasury is further circumvented or obscured in the painting by Rothermel's decision to portray the queen's "hand(s) dramatically crossed beneath a large jeweled pendant" (Truettner 57).  According to Truettner, this is a revival of an "apocryphal seventeeth-century tale in which Isabella offers her jewels to finance Columbus's voyage" (58). Peggy Liss, in Isabel the Queen, asks rhetorically, "[d]id Isabel indeed offer to pawn her jewels? Probably, for that was one of the reasons rulers owned jewels and the sum was small and reimbursement anticipated.  Her gesture need not be viewed as a tremendous commitment to Columbus' project, for in any case she was not offering prized possessions so much as customary collateral" (289).  Truettner suggests the conclusion of "recent scholars . . . that the real source was Moorish plunder, since Granada had been retaken by Spain only a short time before Columbus met Ferdinand and Isabella" (58).  He cautions the viewer against accepting Rothermel's suggestion of "a romantic complicity in New World discovery" as the true basis for the agreement eventually reached between Columbus and the monarchs.  "New World exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was not carried on for altruistic reasons"; he says, "it was a means of developing trade and commerce and of expanding the royal domain" (59).  The very real commercial risk being undertaken by the royals is only briefly indicated by the clearly skeptical faces of Ferdinand, to Isabel's left, and his cautionary advisor.  Truettner notes that the scribe, sitting between Columbus and the royals, serves to "connect the two groups visually, counteracting the king's skepticism" (57).

    Rothermel's depiction of the globe positioned between Isabella and Columbus is fraught with meaning and with historical contradictions.  Truettner notes that its very existence is anachronistic: "The few terrestrial globes that existed in Columbus's time were simple spheres on which land masses were crudely indicated.  The design of Rothermel's globe was probably taken from an early nineteenth-century model" (58).  Its function in the scene, placed as it is on top of a wrinkled map, which Truettner interprets as a reference to the medieval notion of "a flat world" (58),  is to suggest the triumph of reason and of scientific progress over the old order, over the outdated "knowledge" contained in the "numerous discarded books scattered about the floor" (58).  Scientists contemporary with Columbus were, in actuality, only just beginning to use spherical surfaces to map the Earth.  "As Columbus planned his trip, Martin Behaim (ca. 1436-1507) used similar reasoning to construct the first globe or spherical map of the earth.  On Behaim's globe, there would be no room in the ocean sea for two more continents, North and South America . . . the length of the degree Columbus, Behaim, and their contemporaries were using was not correct, or to put it another way, they placed the equator too far to the north" (Porter 67).

    Clearly, Rothermel's Columbus Before the Queen reveals a great deal more about history making by 19th century Americans than it does about the life and times of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish monarchs who supported him.  The painting is a forceful example of the ways in which art and other cultural forces can be manipulated to recast history as a linear progression in service of a particular agenda.  In his essay entitled "The Muse of History," Derek Walcott calls the vision of progress "the rational madness of history seen as sequential time, of a dominated future. Its imagery is absurd" (Ashcroft 373).

Works Consulted

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen, eds. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 1995.

Bender, David L., and Bruno Leone, eds. Christopher Columbus and His Legacy: Opposing Viewpoints.  San Diego: Greenhaven, 1992.
Bushman, Claudia. America Discovers Columbus. Hanover and London: U P of New England,  1992.

Carter, Paul. "Spatial History." The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen.  London: Routledge, 1995.   375-77.

Gerdts, William H., and Mark Thistlewaite. Grand Illusions: History Painting in America.  Fort Worth: Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1988.

Kagan, Richard L. "The Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella." The World of Columbus. Ed. James R. McGovern.   Macon: Mercer UP, 1992.  21-37.

Liss, Peggy K. Isabel the Queen: Life and Times. New York: Oxford UP,1992.

McGovern, James R. "Columbus, a Renaissance Man." The World of Columbus. Ed. James R. McGovern.  Macon: Mercer UP, 1992.  5-19.

Miller, Townsend. The Castles and the Crown: Spain, 1451-1555. New York: Capricorn Books, 1963.

Opitz, Glenn B., ed. Mantle Fielding's Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. New York: Apollo, 1986.

Porter, Charlotte. "Science at the Time of Columbus." The World of Columbus. Ed. James R. McGovern.  Macon: Mercer UP, 1992.   59-77.

Truettner, William H., ed. The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920. Washington:  Smithsonian Institution, 1991.

Walcott, Derek. "The Muse of History." The Post-Colonial Studies Reader.  Eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffen.   London: Routledge, 1995.  370-74.

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