Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi

Picturing Spanish conquest in an era of U.S. expansion.

Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi, 1851, oil on canvas, 101.6 x 127 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, funds provided by the Henry C. Gibson Fund and Mrs. Elliott R. Detchon, 1987.31), a Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, looking at a painting titled “De Soto Raising the Cross on the Mississippi.”

Dr. Anna O. Marley: [0:13] This painting is by Peter Frederick Rothermel.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] This is going back to the early Spanish explorers, the military that moved into the Americas, claiming it for the Spanish crown. This is the invention of an American mythology more than the representation of American history. This is an ambitious painting, one that the artist hoped would become a mural in the United States Capitol.

Dr. Marley: [0:36] The United States Rotunda was referred to as America’s Gallery. Even before large museums like the Smithsonian or the National Gallery were thought of in Washington, D.C., people came to the rotunda of the United States Capitol to see their history. Now, the first series of four paintings were done by Trumbull, and those were scenes from the revolution.

[0:59] Throughout the 1830s, politicians from the North and South were fighting about what painting subjects would fill the four vacancies. They decided that they would have scenes from before the revolution.

[1:15] The four panels that were chosen were all scenes of religion. There was “The Baptism of Pocahontas,” “De Soto Raising the Cross on the Mississippi,” “The Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” and “Columbus Planting His Cross on the Soil of the Caribbean.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:32] Of course, the subtext here is about civilizing the people that are here. This is a deeply racist narrative. But it’s also such an expression of the way in which the 19th century thought about ideas of progress, from the Native Americans, to the Catholic Spanish, to the Protestant United States.

Dr. Marley: [1:48] Exactly. You have the priest in the center of the composition, gesturing to a Native American figure who is praying beneath him, and they are looking up along the diagonal to that cross, so this idea of progress westward. On the side is De Soto, this military leader. His dagger is sheathed, and maybe next to him is a Native American leader.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] We would be remiss if we didn’t speak about the actual history of this moment. The Spanish were brutal. And we know that the diseases that they introduced would have a devastating effect on what were in fact large, complex, highly sophisticated towns and even cities in the southeastern United States.

Dr. Marley: [2:32] Along the Mississippi, before the Spanish explored it, it was the hub of Native American communities who traded all the way up and down the Mississippi River. That population was decimated first by Spanish exploration and diseases and then again by [the] US push westward.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] But none of that was seen fit to be expressed in a painting that was being prepared, perhaps, for the US Capitol. This is a sanitized history, one that tells an idealized story.

Dr. Marley: [3:03] And it makes it seem inevitable — that first the Catholics came and explored the Mississippi, they subjugated the Native Americans, they developed that land, and now it’s our turn, it’s the United States, we’re moving westward, we’re bringing Protestant Christianity — and it was built into the fabric of the United States Capitol.

[3:24] This painting is painted in 1851, after the close of the Mexican-American War. And when tensions are building between the United States and its southern neighbor, Mexico, Rothermel starts painting scenes of the Spanish conquest.

[3:41] He’s basing them on these very romantic tales of history, where American authors are looking back to the Spanish conquest as a prototype for American — that is, US — expansion in a time when the United States is reaching further west and further south.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] What strikes me when I look at this painting is that the artist has placed De Soto in the lower left, standing quietly. You can see a priest, you see a Bible, you see the religious service that’s taking place, but there is no violence here. There is, instead, camaraderie. There is brotherhood. It’s as if this painting is functioning as a corrective to contemporary strife.

Dr. Marley: [4:20] The best paintings lodge in our minds so much that we almost see them as truth. Many people, when raised on images like this — going to see them in the US Capitol and seeing them reproduced in history books — believe that this is the truth. But history paintings often tell us more about the times that they were painted than they do about the historic events that they purport to be about.

[4:45] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Anna O. Marley and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Peter Frederick Rothermel, De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi," in Smarthistory, February 15, 2020, accessed June 17, 2024,