Powell's De Soto and United States History

The Critical Reception to Powell's Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, A.D. 1541

Original Conception: John Dyer
First Extension: Eric J. Gislason


William Powell (1823-79) did not acquire the commission without difficulty. He had an impressive political pedigree and evidence shows he used this to gain the commission. For example, Powell studied in Italy for a few years during the mid-1840's as a student of Henry Inman, the artist who was originally designated for the commission but died before he could complete a panel. And although an easterner, born in New York, Powell's support of Western expansion interests gained him the favor of Ohio congressmen. Writer Washington Irving sent a letter to Congress on behalf of the young painter, as well, writing that Powell "possesses genius and talent of a superior order, and...is destined to win great triumph for American art."3 Putnam's Magazine speculated that Powell must somehow have cajoled Irving out of the recommendation.4 And at least one Congressman tried to wipe Powell's name off the record in order to replace him with another well-known historical painter of the time, Thomas Rossiter.5

De Soto was not well received, either. Putnam's Monthly Magazine of January, 1854 harshly criticized the work. In their review of the painting, the magazine's editors include a letter by the artist, but preface it to the effect that "Mr. Powell thinks we have not done him justice in our remarks on his painting."6 The editors attack the choice of subject and artist and find fault with the painting's "melodramatic style": "The picture is, in fact, in every respect bad, and is unworthy of being placed in the national capitol."7

In his letter to Putnam's Powell defends the piece, arguing that the Library Committee, not he, chose the event to be portrayed. Powell defends the composition on the grounds that it is historically accurate, citing George Bancroft's History of the United States as well as Theodore Irving's Conquest of Florida.8 Inaccurately, Powell claims the House approved his commission with an overwhelming vote of 198 out of 212. The real vote, as listed in the Congressional Globe9, was 89 to 28. These disputations aside, though, Powell's choice of subject matter and his rendering of De Soto at the Mississippi was revealing in many important ways. Powell's De Soto is the final member of the second group of Rotunda murals, originally commissioned by Congress in 1836. These latter murals both inform and reinscribe the historical narrative of republicanism established in the four earlier murals painted by artist John Trumbull.