The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1958-59)

Salvador Dali

Dalí completed his tenth masterwork, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, in 1959. This work, which is almost 14 feet tall, is an ambitious homage to Dalí's Spain, combining Spanish history, religion, art and myth.

This painting was commissioned for Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle in New York. At that time, some Catalan historians claimed that Columbus was actually from Catalonia, not Italy. From that perspective, the discovery of America was all the more relevant for Dalí, who was himself Catalan.

Dalí's inspiration for this work was a painting titled The Surrender of Breda by the great 17th century Spanish painter, Velazquez. Dalí repeated the image of spears from that painting on the right hand side of his work. Within these spears, Dalí painted the image of a crucified Christ, based on a drawing by the Spanish mystic Saint John.

The banner that Columbus is holding bears the likeness of Dalí's wife, Gala. She appears as a saint, suggesting that she was Dalí's muse, and that she was responsible for his own "discovery of America," where he captured the attention of the world with her encouragement.

The gadflies and the bishop at the bottom left are a reference to a Catalan folk legend about Saint Narciso. In this legend, on three occasions gadflies emerge from the tomb of St. Narciso to drive away French invaders. Dalí used this myth to underline the Catalan people's strength against foreign influence and to express his patriotic devotion to his homeland's independence.

The most enigmatic element of all in this painting is a celestial sea urchin in the foreground. It was painted in the 1950s, and Dalí told the Morses that the sea urchin's meaning would only be apparent later. In the summer of 1971, Eleanor Morse remarked that Dalí had meant the urchin to symbolize the moon and Neil Armstrong's future first footstep on the moon. Through this symbolism, Dalí paralleled Armstrong's moon walk with Columbus's discovery of America, so that there was a clear continuity between the discovery of the "new world" in 1492 and the discovery of another "new world" in 1969.

<This work is rich in detail. For a much larger view, click here.>

Notes courtesy of the Dali Museum