Image 49

Figure 3: De Soto

Henry Johnson employed the same associationalist strategy by including in the History of the United States an engraving of “De Soto's Discovery of the Mississippi” by William Henry Powell, a painting also commissioned for the Capitol Rotunda. This “original moment” work in oil, depicting De Soto entering a Native American encampment on the banks of the Mississippi, was a composite painting that has been described as a “theatrical spectacle.” [73]   In conscious imitation of the triumphal arrival scenes of Roman emperors in ancient painting and processional sculpture, Powell’s De Soto enters the village on a white steed ahead of a cavalcade of armored soldiers who have emerged in a great flurry from a dense wilderness. Somehow a cannon has preceded De Soto to the scene as have various hooded and shadowy priests citing incantations over the installment of a cross. Some Native American women embrace in fear, other men stand around naively nonchalant, while still others flee in canoes, but this is essentially a non-confrontational episode, a dramatic meeting of cultures consistent with other “moment-of-origin” paintings that serve as “symbolic touchstones of the nation’s destiny.” [74]

Some contemporary reviewers were concerned by the excessive political tone of Powell’s theatrical painting and complained that it distorted the past in order to make concessions to “Congress’s western constituency.” [75]  Even a reviewer for the Literary World argued that the Rotunda pictures “should have been strictly limited to actual scenes in the actual history of the United States” and that “the subject itself should have been at all events an actual point of history.” [76]   But Johnson included the illustration because, like others in the Rotunda collection, it had attained the status of irrefutable fact by virtue of its highly visible location [Image 49]. Here, as elsewhere, the publisher’s editorial strategy was clear: place before readers those pictorial images that had risen to the level of indisputable icons, even if their historical accuracy might be questioned on occasion, since it was the visual around which readers had established preconceived notions, and it was the visual that preconditioned interest in the literary.

[73] Ann Uhry Abrams, “National Paintings and American Character: Historical Murals in the Capitol’s Rotunda,” in Picturing History, p. 77.
[74] Greenhouse, “The Landing of the Fathers,” in ibid., 50.
[75] Abrams, “National Paintings and American Character,” in ibid., p. 77.
[76] ”Filling the Panels of the Capitol with National Pictures,” Literary World, 20 November 1848, p. 385 as cited in ibid.