Thursday, 29 October 2009

Christopher Columbus, by Carl von Piloty


Piloty depicts Columbus at the very moment of discovery – a brief fragment of time before this he was all but defeated, his calculations checked and rechecked but his prize still tantalisingly out of reach, and his reputation all but shattered. But at this very instant the cry of discovery is heard: the voyage’s goal is reached, and the continent of America is claimed.  As historian Scott Powell says,

“The themes of the life of Christopher Columbus are timeless.  Among them are independence, vision, courage, dedication, perseverance.  All are captured in the excellent painting by German master historical painter Carl von Piloty in his painting simply entitled ‘Christopher Columbus’.”

But obviously qualities like independence, vision, courage, dedication and perseverance can’t just be picked off the canvas like pins from a pin cushion.  Read Scott Powell’s post to see how – and how well – Piloty has integrated these into his canvas.


  1. I have read the interpretation of the painting "Columbus" by von Piloty and am wondering where it comes from. I have just been to Alte Pinakothek in Munich and have to say that was particularly impressed by this picture. However - when looking at it from a close distance I had a totally different impression.

    I believe that the picture shows Columbus during the last days, hours, minutes or maybe even seconds BEFORE he discovered America. There are several elements that seem to welcome such an interpretation: everybody apart from Columbus seems to be asleep on the ship (they would surely be waking up if there was a cry that a land has been spotted), but even more compelling is Columbus's face which cannot be clearly seen in this reproduction. He seems to be terrified, anxious, with eyes widely open and I think I have spotted drops of sweat on his forehead.

    It seemed to me to be clearly a depiction of a man who had much trust put in him, much pressure to lead other people while he himself starts losing faith in his dreams and knows that he might be leading them to their doom. The doubts which many of us are often very familiar with. And wouldn't it make the theme of the picture even more compelling?

  2. Hi qragraq, I was relying on the interpretation of historian Scott Powell, at the link provided in the post above.

    I took the men asleep to be a metaphor for Columbus being completely alone in his decision to press on--and the identification of journey's end made by Columbus himself. Dramatically correct, if not nautically. ;^)

    I haven't had the benefit of studying the original canvas, however. I'm sure Scott would love to hear your assessment--you should make your commment there too.


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