Powell's De Soto and United States History

The Art of Empire: De Soto and the Mid-Century Murals

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


The first of the four "mid-century" Rotunda murals appeared in 1840, although its subject-matter preceded the Revolution by almost two-hundred years. The Baptism of Pocahontas at Jamestown, Virginia, 1613, by John Chapman, features many of the same tropes used by John Trumbull (as discussed in the previous essay), but these similarities are allusive rather than strictly imitative. Pocahantas, the central figure in the painting, yields to a new kind of community in her decision to convert to Christianity, very much like George Washington's acquiescence before the fledgling government in General George Washington Resigning His Commission to Congress at Annapolis, Maryland, December 23, 1783. Unlike Washington's resignation, however, Pocahantas' submission carries racial implications. Chapman's painting serves as an apology for the colonists' forceful subordination of the indigenous peoples of the North American continent, a justification of the westward march of European civilization.

The painting is not without a semblance of balance, however. Sir Thomas Dale and Opachisco, Uncle of Pocahontas, both wear red togas, and the priest and Indian princess both wear white. But as suggested by Dale's armor and the armed guards surrounding the congregation, as well as by the dominance of the preacher, this is not an exchange between equals--as in Trumbull's portrayals of the humane and genteel surrenders at Saratoga and Yorktown-- nor is it a strictly voluntary proceeding. The Indians, the only persons seated in the picture, brood over the 'loss' of their daughter. Their attitude is one of resignation in the face of overwhelming odds. European civilization--the knight-errants in armor, the religious strictures of the Christian ceremony-- hems them in.

Providence explicitly controls the scene in Robert Weir's 1843 work, Embarkation of the Pilgrims at Delft Haven, Holland, July 22nd, 1620. Weir's painting is about beginnings. The individual pilgrims, setting sail for the New World, yield responsibility to the divine and are reassured by the presence of the rainbow--a symbol of hope and God's covenant never again to destroy the Earth by flood. The minister lifts his eyes to heaven as the circled travellers bend their heads in supplication. God, the painting argues, not man, commences the embarkation, one of the first successful colonizations of America. Wier moves the locus of decision-making out of the frame--and into the heavens--but he keeps at the center the group's communion, the cache of arms and armor. This is a crucial decision, for in doing so he subverts the dynamic established in Trumbull's Declaration of Independence in Congress, at the Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4th, 1776, in which the accountability of the signers for their own actions forms both the thematic and visual center of the painting. The pilgrims, with their armor and faith, are sent forth by God's hand to subdue the wilderness. Weir's Embarkation presents the fate of the American nation not as the product of rational rebellion but as a divinely pre-determined fact.

John Vanderlyn's Landing of Columbus at the Island of Guanahani, West Indies, October 12th, 1492 (1847) dramatizes Weir's themes of divine determinism and origin still more deeply. While members of his train sink to their knees in the sand, Columbus ignores the surly bonds of earth and looks toward God, the cross directly behind him and close to his head. As in the Embarkation, movement is crucial to this painting. Columbus's wake, the earth-bound souls behind him, starkly contrast with his lofty ideals: the Indians cower and worship to his right, and from the left everything ascends towards the explorer, whose vision and banner lead us away from the scene itself. The banner, a symbol of European might and imperialist expansion, precedes Columbus himself, who is depicted as a mere standard-bearer for forces much larger than human agency.

Hung in 1853, William Powell's Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, A. D. 1541 has the last word in the historical narrative of the eight Rotunda paintings. It combines elements of all these paintings, especially those of Trumbull. Powell utilizes a cannon to delineate victor and vanquished, as in Burgoyne at Saratoga, and the Indian tribe succumbs to institutions of civilization as Pocahontas does to the Church and George Washington does to the U. S. government in their pictures. In the center foreground the cache of weapons and armor and the characters appealing to God resemble those in the Embarkation. The raising of the cross on the right margin, a harbinger of De Soto's progress, evinces the same sweeping ascent found in Landing of Columbus. De Soto is mounted on a white horse like General Lincoln in Cornwallis at Yorktown, though, unlike the surrendering British officer in that painting, the Indian warriors opposing the conquistador are not treated as equals. The fearful women and chieftain bearing the peace pipe are clearly inferior to the Europeans. Compare De Soto's organization --the food on the ground, the soldiers, shirtless, or bandaging themselves--with the more formal Burgoyne. Gone is the aristocratic order present in Burgoyne; De Soto depicts a savage, unorganized land which must be shaped by the power of European civilization.

Powell draws on Trumbull's iconography--the victor, the vanquished, the martyrdom of the honorable sacrifice-- in order to make a different thematic statement. The raising of the cross in De Sotocorresponds in location to Trumbull's presidential table in the Declaration, for example. However, Powell's main figure, De Soto, is neither a republican scion nor a figure of democratic deliberation. On the contrary, the implied martyrdom of the revolutionary pact signers has been shifted away from the hero(es) of the painting. In De Soto, dignity is allied with exploitation. Surrender means submission, as it did for Pocahantas. Whereas Trumbulls' didactic aristocracy was tempered by republicanism and the desire for peaceful democracy, Powell's work is implicated in the exploitation and subjugation of imperialism.

Conclusion

The four mid-century paintings dramatically revise the historical narrative Trumbull began. Rather than commemorate the republican Revolutionary tradition of the United States, the later murals draw inspiration from a time ante-dating the Revolution. Their historical revision sets up colonial-era expansionist assertions as precursors to the Revolutionary War and re-casts Trumbull's republican vision in a light compatible with imperialism. The Revolution is (re)written as a crucial stage in imperialism rather than a renunciation of it. The later group of murals reveals the United States' mid-century quest for a philosophy of origins, a search for an unassailable justification of both its past and present practices. In this effort, America reaches back to notions of romantic European ancestry for its birthright instead of toward the Republican legacy of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Taken together, the eight Rotunda paintings institutionalize an imperial identity in the most public building of a democratic- republican nation.