Columbus Landing Scenes

We have informally studied the myriad landing scenes on souvenirs at the World’s Columbian Exposition for many years. But once we began working with the Kennel Columbian Collection in April 2019 we found more and more depictions of Columbus landing in America. At least 100 medals feature some interpretation of Columbus landing.

We can attribute these derivative scenes to the few paintings done after Columbus returned–and years after his death. The landing scenes from the 1893 Exposition are more than a little interesting. I am researching the scenes as depicted at the fair and they seem a bit humorous when one delves into them.

If you look at common medals (so-called dollars and Eglit listed medals) the first thing you will notice is the similarity from medal to medal. Columbus is typically the central figure, holding a sword in one hand and a cross in another. Christianity was a major theme in Columbus’ life and that of his men. While there are differences from medal to medal and on souvenirs from spoons to purses, these are all remarkably similar. Did Columbus’ men carry a half dozen 7-8-foot tall crosses ashore with them? It seems unlikely. Beyond this, the most extreme cross on the beach with Columbus and his men was shown as a roughly 10-foot tall, heavy timbered cross–with Jesus crucified on it. While that may be a personification of Jesus, showing it on a medal as part of the artwork illustrating Columbus’ landing is rather ludicrous.

The main difference from medal to medal is the clothing of the men (some wore armour, some did not) and the lack thereof on the Natives who typically are shown cowering behind trees and bushes. Men appeared to wear loin cloths; women clearly wore nothing.

Is this just artistic license and 1893 interpretation of events 400 years earlier or providing a theme for souvenirs? Naturally a fair, even one 126 years ago, features visuals with historical scenes more than historical accuracy.

Clearly the various artists creating the myriad designs on souvenirs were tasked with giving fairgoers something that said “Columbus” and landing scenes were the most common portrayal of Columbus on items that fairgoers could take home with them.

There are only two painting known to exist from Columbus’ lifetime, so the dozens–hundreds–of landing scenes are manufactured based on facts as they were known. Souvenirs did not receive artistic attention; they were acceptable if generally perceived as legitimate interpretations of what fairgoers–souvenir purchasers–were happy with.

I selected this topic to research because I found the differences and similarities of landing scenes interesting. That one could find 100 landing scenes on medals is more than just interesting. If one had the time an even broader study would be the portraits of Columbus on hundreds of medals and other souvenirs. Which examples are the closest to accurate is one issue; another is how totally different most are from one another.

If you study the likenesses of Columbus from the Exposition the differences are overwhelming. Whether they look like Columbus is one thing; who they look like is another. The bust of Columbus on the Columbian half dollar is generally acknowledged to be a) the best likeness and b) the best artistic rendering.

I hope to have a completed study on the landing scenes next year, perhaps as a report or whitepaper of something less than 50 pages. If one decides to do a similar study on the portraits of Columbus little research will be necessary. Such a study will be a comparative look at hundreds of portraits. Unlike the historical significance and analysis of the landing scenes, looking at hundreds of portraits will be more or less a guessing game of which ones look like Columbus–and which ones look the least like him.

Our work with the Kennel Columbian collection began in April and will likely not be finished by next April. If you have not seen the catalog–which is now at 170 pages–or The History Bank Store please contact me to ensure you are on our email lists or go to thehistorybankstore.com or contact me at norm@thehistorybank.com

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