In this painting, the American artist John Vanderlyn re-creates the landing of the explorer, Christopher Columbus, in the so-called New World. The adventurer had set sail from the Canary Islands around early September in 1492, with the backing of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and his expedition made landfall on one of the Bahamian islands in the middle of October in the same year. That first moment when Christopher Columbus and his crew stepped foot on land was the scene that John Vanderlyn captured in the painting above. Christopher Columbus, himself, described the event in his own words to Luis de St. Angel—treasurer of Aragon—in a letter written by the explorer during his journey home in 1493. Columbus wrote:
“As I know you will be rejoiced at the glorious success that our Lord has given me in my voyage, I write this to tell you how in thirty-three days I sailed to the Indies with the fleet that the illustrious King and Queen, our sovereigns, gave me, where I discovered a great many islands, inhabited by numberless people; and of all I have taken possession for their Highnesses by proclamation and display of the Royal Standard without opposition” (Letter to Luis de St. Angel, 1493).
John Vanderlyn captured the scene well, displaying Columbus centerfold with his proud Royal Standard held high. The artist, however, also included other details on the periphery of the painting. On the right side, natives of the island look on at the foreigners with shock, fear and confusion. On the left side of the canvas, some of Christopher Columbus’ crew have already broken away from the flag ceremony in order to start searching for treasure.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Letter of Columbus to Luis de St. Angel in American Historical Documents edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.