Some seventy years before Columbus Day was first celebrated as a national holiday in the 1890s, an anonymous schoolgirl probably in New England rendered a tribute in watercolor to one of the most important cultural exchanges of all time. This piece, which she titled “Christopher Columbus Landing on the Island of San Salvador” in florid script along the bottom, has graced our galleries at the Fenimore Art Museum for decades. I have always taken pains to see it included in our exhibitions whenever possible.
It is not history. In fact this piece was probably based on a print source. Art rarely, if ever, is history in the real sense. Instead, this painting speaks to the young girl’s view of herself, her heritage, and her values. In her watercolor she has created a wonderfully charming and idyllic scene of Columbus and the Natives meeting for the first time. Her Natives are resplendent in their decorative garb and feathered headdresses, one smoking a long pipe and another playfully pointing a bow and arrow out toward the Spanish ships. Columbus himself is a minor payer in this visual drama, barely visible on the shore in the middle ground being greeted by a row of Native dignitaries. The native flora is as stylized and decorative as the Native clothing; the fauna (especially the “monkey” in the tree at the right) is sure to elicit a chuckle in even the most stoic viewer.
Our anonymous schoolgirl also created a patriotic passage along the top of the piece that really sings. The eagle, flags, swords and muskets, and stars, along with the phrase “Where Liberty Dwells there is My Country” written along the margin of the main picture, all speak to the artist’s pride in the nation that arose as a result of the voyage depicted.
What makes this work so appealling? Folk art employs symbols that represent everyone, rendered in a style that is accessible to all. My experience is that most patriotic folk art unites far more than it divides. Our young painter of this piece probably never realized she was an artist, or that her work would ever be in an art museum, but she knew how to imbue a picture with her personal message of harmony, benevolence, and inclusiveness. That's something of which she could be justly proud.