Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus

The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus is the name of a painting by artist Salvador Dalí, begun in 1958 and finished in 1959. It is a huge canvas, 410 x 284 cm (over 14 feet tall), one of series of paintings this size Dalí did in this era (he was said to have been inspired by an article by an art critic which surveyed the history of painting rather arbitrarily only dealing with very large canvases as "Master Works", so Dalí set himself the goal to produce more such oversized canvases than any other artist of note in history). The work was commissioned by United States millionaire businessman A. Reynolds Morse (who was a major collector of Dalí's works) to be hung in the lobby of his business office near Columbus Circle in New York City.

As the title implies, the painting deals with Christopher Columbus's first landing in the New World, but it depicts this event metaphorically rather than aiming at historical accuracy. Columbus is depicted not as a middle aged mariner but at an adolscent boy in a classical robe, to symbolize America as a young nation with its best years ahead of it. Dalí was going through a period of intense interest in Roman Catholic mysticism at this time*, and so the idea that Columbus bringing Christianity and the True Church to a New World was a great and holy accomplishment is a theme of the painting. Dalí's wife Gala appeared in the role of the Virgin Mary in a number of Dalí's paintings from this time; here Gala in the role of The Blessed Virgin (or according to some commentators Saint Helena) is shown on a banner in Columbus's right hand. Dalí himself is seen in the background as a kneeling monk holding a crucifix. Dalí's belief that the great man Columbus was actually Catalonian shows up with the incorporation of the old Catalonian flag.

The painting contains numerous references to the works of Diego Velazquez, the great Spanish painter who had died 300 years earlier and who influenced both Dalí's painting and his moustache.

In the bottom center of the painting, on the beach a few steps in front of Columbus, is the bumpy and pockmarked brown sphere of a sea urchin with a curious halo-like ring around it. A story says that Morse objected to this object on artistic grounds, and suggested that Dalí paint over it. Dalí insisted that it was a very important element in the painting, and that Morse needed to contemplate it to understand. Morse reluctantly agreed, but never did think much of the sea urchin until 10 years later, when he was watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing on television, and he came to a sudden realization. He immediately telephoned Dalí long distance to excitedly tell Dalí that he now understood that the sea urchin represented other planets that young America would explore in the tradition of Columbus. Dalí curtly replied, "Yes of course. It took you this long to figure it out? Incredible! Now I must get back to work." and hung up on Morse.

The painting now hangs in the Salvador Dali Museum in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

Note: In Dalí's own words, he actually claimed that his faith was not "Roman Catholic" but rather "Romanian Catholic". If Dalí ever explained what he meant by this, it seems to have escaped the attention of his standard biographies.

External Links with photographs of the artwork