By 1870, this small picture, first exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1843 as Embarkation of Columbus, was described more precisely as Embarkation of Columbus from the Harbor of Palos on His First Voyage. The latter title is preferable to either the 1843 listing or to the more recently used title, Departure of Columbus for the New World. Since 1842 marked the 350th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage, there is reason to believe that it was painted in that year. In any case, Durand had already sold the painting to one C. Cope by September 1843, when it was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy.1For the early history, see Rutledge, 67; Yarnall and Gerdts, 2: 1116; Lawall, 41, no. 80 and fig. 43.
The work is the opposite of the traditional history painting which so many of Durand’s contemporaries were bent on producing. At the very moment that he painted it, John Vanderlyn was producing his heroic canvas, Columbus Discovering America, a stage for large theatrical figures, for the Rotunda of the Capitol Building. Durand’s essay, modest in the extreme, is most comparable to Thomas Cole’s similar oil sketches, in which nature, not the human figure, dominates the scene and carries the expressive burden.
Durand was historically correct in showing the embarkation site as a pastoral setting. Columbus did not depart from the busy port of Cadiz, writes the historian Daniel J. Boorstin, because
. . . the same day had also been fixed by their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella, as the deadline for the expulsion of all Jews from Spain . . . In the early morning of August 3 the very same tide that carried the hapless Jews to an old world of persecutions carried Columbus’ three vessels from Palos de la Frontera near the mouth of the Rio Tinto toward their unwitting discovery of a new refuge for the persecuted.2Boorstin, 232.
Durand probably was unaware of the reason for the change of site, but the port matched his expressive purposes nicely. Unencumbered with architecture, his picture is tuned to the language of nature. Swelling clouds introduce the expanse of ocean and the radiant morning sun, an auspicious omen for the uncharted passage Columbus is about to undertake. Of course, Durand would have known Washington Irving’s History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, first published in 1828 with many subsequent editions. Although its few pages on the port of Palos are not especially descriptive, Columbus’s own record of the time of departure on Friday, August 3, 1492, is duly noted: “half an hour before sunrise.” In the interest of symbolism, not to mention visibility, Durand has advanced the time to the first full appearance of the sun.3Irving, 3: chap. 1.
It seems no accident that his vaguely medieval horsemen remind us more of Crusaders than sailors—and indeed, for Queen Isabella, the prospect of converting the “idolaters of India” to Christianity was of great moment—as they prepare to board vessels to what Durand knew would be a new world, a second Eden. Durand would also have known, and appreciated, that “Christopher” meant “Christ Bearer.” Although no direct evidence exists, both the small size of the painting and the tonal palette suggest that he may have intended it as a model for an engraving.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.