Images 47 (left) and 48 (right).

Figure 2: The Landing of Columbus

Spencer’s heroic figures in the History of the United States were marked by their abilities to understand intuitively Nature's moral intentions for their lives and to act upon them effectively. His Christopher Columbus was no blind operative of destiny or passive agent of change; he was a hero who pursued actively his inspirational vision despite years of “contempt” and “absurd prejudice and conceited ignorance” which might “have worn out a man” less aware of the providential divinity of his work. [70]  The engraver H. B. Hall’s treatment of the most significant moment in Columbus’s master narrative—landfall in a New World—was based on an original oil painting for the Rotunda of the Capitol by John Vanderlyn, a painting that, when completed and mounted in 1847, was viewed annually by thousands of visitors who came to regard it as the standard “American” image of Columbus’s epic moment of discovery [Image 47]. This symbolic interpretation of Columbus’s discovery had become so popular by the mid-1850s that Vanderlyn’s depiction began to appear everywhere—on stamps, towels, and even circus wagons. Johnson’s use of “The Landing of Columbus” implied not only an endorsement of its ruling nationalist imperatives but also a desire to associate the History of the United States with its “official imprimatur.” [71]

Vanderlyn’s “Landing of Columbus” also appeared in many other variants throughout the 1850s, especially in advertisements from marketers who wished to associate their products with the genesis of the American identity. “Very often these popular renditions cropped the composition so that Indians and the minimal landscape disappeared altogether,” Groseclose has noted, “or condensed it so that the figure of Columbus holding his sword and standard stood entirely alone.” [72]   Henry Johnson used this commercial strategy in the frontispiece to the History of the United States, commissioning Chappel to produce an abbreviated version of the Vanderlyn piece to serve as a symbolic gateway into the text [Image 48].

Chappel succeeded well in this task. His assembled figures were adapted from the standardized “types” in the original oil painting (the militiaman leaning on his crossbow, the robed priest, the merchant-gentlemen, the supplicating Native American bearing gifts, etc), while Chappel intensified the central drama of discovery at the heart of Spencer’s narrative by eliminating some of the most distracting elements of Vanderlyn’s original painting (the frantic sailors combing the beaches for gold, for instance). In fact, Columbus’s ethereal gaze and the dramatic body language of Chappel’s figures outstrip the heroism of not only Vanderlyn’s original composition but also of Spencer’s literary description of Columbus as well. Keenly aware of the importance of enticing readers into pictorial texts at dramatic points of entry, publisher Johnson used such sentimental images borrowed from the public domain in a calculated fashion to promote his product. In the process, he not only identified his book as a desirable consumer item in the literary marketplace, he also associated the origins of the American past with the emergence of a mass consumer ethic on which the cottage industry of pictorial history depended for its survival.

[70] Ibid., I:iii-iv; I:460, II:43, I:3.
[71] Barbara Groseclose, “American Genesis: The Landing of Columbus,” in American Icons, 17.
[72] Ibid., 12, 21.