Discovery of America (statue)

Last updated
Discovery of America
Artist Luigi Persico
Type White marble
Dimensions486.4 cm× 255.3 cm× 184.2 cm(191 12 in× 100 12 in× 72 12 in)
Formerly East Facade of the United States Capitol
(In storage), Washington, DC

Discovery of America is a large marble sculpture group, created by Luigi Persico, which adorned the front of the east façade of the United States Capitol building from 1844 to 1958, before being put into storage.



The first proposal for the construction of two sculptures to flank the Capitol Building’s main staircase was submitted by Pennsylvania senator James Buchanan in April, 1836. [1] Discovery of America was commissioned on April 3, 1837, when President Martin Van Buren sanctioned the engineering of Luigi Persico’s design for the statue. [2] The statue was modeled in 1839, and carved between 1840–1843. Persico created the statue in his studio in Naples, Italy, using marble from a quarry between Pisa and Carrara, and it was transported to the U.S. upon completion. [3] It was exhibited at the east façade of the United States Capitol, from 1844 until 1958, when it was removed. [4]

Various Indian groups wrote letters to the Architect of the Capitol calling for Discovery of America and its partner statue, The Rescue [Rescue], to be removed permanently. Even beyond Native Americans, statements made by many Congress members insinuate their campaigns against the statue pair. [1] In a 1941 Congressional session, Montana representative James Francis O'Connor held that "this statuary group is an atrocious distortion of the facts of American history and a gratuitous insult to the great race ....". [5] After years of protest, in 1958, both Discoveryof America and The Rescue by Horatio Greenough, were removed from the east façade in preparation for the building's extension. These two statues were placed in storage and — without public discussion — never restored to their original positions on the left and right side of the building's primary staircase. [2]


Both Discovery (left) and Rescue (right) are visible in this image of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration. Abraham Lincoln inauguration 1861.jpg
Both Discovery (left) and Rescue (right) are visible in this image of Abraham Lincoln's 1861 inauguration.

The statue depicts Christopher Columbus holding a globe aloft as a cowering Indian maiden nearby looks on. This depiction of Columbus’ triumph and the Indian’s recoil is a strong demonstration of white superiority over savage, naive Indians. There is a simultaneous movement of Columbus pressing on to conquer the New World he discovered with a powerful disposition, as the female Indian stands back, intimidated in response. [1] The relationship displayed between Columbus and the female Indian in Discovery of America extends to “represent the meeting of the two races,” [3] as Persico captures their first interaction, highlighting the “moral and intellectual inferiority” of Indians. [3] The portrayal of this encounter would later become popular iconography in American art and be used to justify political expansionism. [1] In fact, even the placement of Discovery of America at the Capitol's main entrance staircase was interpreted as contributing to its portrayal of Western civilization's triumph under white male leadership. Columbus stands boldly, displaying the success of white settlers in taking possession of the New World as the Indian acknowledges his superiority and draws back, wide-eyed. [1]

This depiction of Columbus is very different from the traditional portraits, rendering him as a bearded, hawk-faced and stern-eyed figure clad in traditional Conquistador armor. Usually, Columbus is shown in flowing Renaissance robes with an astrolabe or a spyglass in hand to represent his title of "Admiral of the Ocean". Persico’s Discovery of America thus introduces the understanding of Columbus in the context of the mid-1800s - the time period in which this statue was created - as a “bold adventurer… unequalled in grace, and unapproached in majesty, by anything which native or foreign talent affords”. [3] President James Buchanan described the statue as representing "the great discoverer when he first bounded with ecstasy upon the shore, ail his toils past, presenting a hemisphere to the astonished world, with the name America inscribed upon it. Whilst he is thus standing upon the shore, a female savage, with awe and wonder depicted in her countenance, is gazing upon him." [6]

Political context

Discovery of America, as well as other charged artworks commissioned to adorn the Capitol building, contributed to the iconography which informed westward expansion. Many works of art created for the Capitol building were even used by congressmen to support political movements west, due to their underlying symbolism related to Manifest Destiny - specifically the inherent Anglo-American supremacy over native Indians. [1] Columbus is clearly the dominant figure in the statue as the Indian woman gazes up at him with a combination of both awe and fear. In this way, the statue references the popular early to mid 19th century notion of Manifest Destiny through the allegory of Americans spreading civilization and more specifically, Christianity, to the natives who they considered to be savages. In fact, prior to the statue’s erection there was already an almost uniform viewpoint in antebellum America regarding Indian preservation, where environmental expansion was concerned. This sentiment is clearly expressed in an 1825 debate of the Committee on Indian Affairs as member John Elliott referred to Indian-white settler relations as a “contest… for the existence of our infant settlements, and for the attainment of that power by which a civilized and Christian people might safely occupy this promised land of civil and religious liberty”. [1]

Thus, this display of American fascination with explorations earlier in its history draws an interesting parallel with the westward expansion taking place during the time of Discovery of America’s erection. [2] Furthermore, there is evidence of concrete references made to Persico’s statue in arguments intended to prove America’s mission inherent in Manifest Destiny ideology and in doing so, justify the annexation of Indian land. In 1845, for example, Alabama representative James E. Belser defended the decision to seize Texas contending, “two figures which have so recently been erected on the eastern portico of this Capitol” display “an instructive lesson” regarding the manifestation of liberty and light which would continue to spread as America expanded westward. [1] As a result of this layered symbolism and Discovery of America’s emergence in political rhetoric, the statue seems to act as a justification of the legislative actions of Andrew Jackson to approve the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in severe consequences for native people - most notably, the Trail of Tears. [7]


During the process to move Discovery of America and Rescue to storage, a crane dropped Greenough’s Rescue. Ironically enough, the statue broke into the fragments in which it now subsists. Discovery of America is said to be in a similarly poor state of preservation. Both statues can now be found in a storage facility in Maryland, owned by the Smithsonian Institution. [2]

Related Research Articles

United States Capitol Seat of the United States Congress

The United States Capitol, often called the Capitol Building, is the meeting place of the United States Congress and the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government. It is located on Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. Though no longer at the geographic center of the federal district, the Capitol forms the origin point for the district's street-numbering system and the district's four quadrants.

Manifest destiny Cultural belief of 19th century American expansionists

Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural belief in the 19th-century United States that American settlers were destined to expand across North America. There are three basic themes to manifest destiny:

<i>Statue of Freedom</i> 19th-century statue by Thomas Crawford on top of the US Capitol

The Statue of Freedom, also known as Armed Freedom or simply Freedom, is a bronze statue designed by Thomas Crawford (1814–1857) that, since 1863, has crowned the dome of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Originally named Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, a U.S. government publication now states that the statue "is officially known as the Statue of Freedom." The statue depicts a female figure bearing a military helmet and holding a sheathed sword in her right hand and a laurel wreath and shield in her left.

<i>Winged Victory of Samothrace</i> Statue from Samothrace, Greece in the Louvre, Paris, France

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called the Nike of Samothrace, is a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike, that was created in about the 2nd century BC. Since 1884, it has been prominently displayed at the Louvre and is one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world. H. W. Janson described it as "the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture".

Minnesota State Capitol United States historic place

The Minnesota State Capitol is the seat of government for the U.S. state of Minnesota, in its capital city of Saint Paul. It houses the Minnesota Senate, Minnesota House of Representatives, the office of the Attorney General and the office of the Governor. The building also includes a chamber for the Minnesota Supreme Court, although court activities usually take place in the neighboring Minnesota Judicial Center.

Oregon State Capitol The building housing the state legislature and the offices of the governor, secretary of state, and treasurer of the U.S. state of Oregon

The Oregon State Capitol is the building housing the state legislature and the offices of the governor, secretary of state, and treasurer of the U.S. state of Oregon. It is located in the state capital, Salem. Constructed from 1936 to 1938 and expanded in 1977, the current building is the third to house the Oregon state government in Salem. The first two capitols in Salem were destroyed by fire, one in 1855 and the other in 1935.

United States Capitol rotunda Component of United States Capitol

The United States Capitol rotunda is the central rotunda of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., built 1818–1824. It is located below the Capitol dome, built 1857–1866; the later construction also extended the height of the rotunda walls. It is the tallest part of the Capitol and has been described as its "symbolic and physical heart".

Hall of Columns

The Hall of Columns is a more than 100-foot-long (30 m) hallway lined with twenty-eight fluted columns in the south wing extension of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. It is also the gallery for eighteen statues of the National Statuary Hall Collection.

<i>Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way</i>

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way is a 20-by-30-foot painted mural displayed behind the western staircase of the House of Representatives chamber in the United States Capitol Building. The mural was painted by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze in 1861 and symbolizes Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined for Western exploration and expansion originating from the initial colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean. A study measuring 33 14 by 43 38 inches hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Horatio Greenough

Horatio Greenough was an American sculptor best known for his United States government commissions The Rescue (1837–50) and George Washington (1840).

<i>The Rescue</i> (statue)

The Rescue (1837–1850) is a large marble sculpture group which was assembled in front of the east façade of the United States Capitol building and exhibited there from 1853 until 1958, when it was removed and never restored. The sculptural ensemble was created by sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805–1852) who had previously been commissioned by the U.S. government to create a massive sculpture, George Washington (1832–1841) for the Capitol rotunda, also now removed from that site. Due to long-standing controversies, these two sculptures have diminished Greenough's reputation.

<i>The Westward Journey</i>

The Westward Journey, also listed as Indians, Reaper, Blacksmith, Pioneer Family, is a set of outdoor sculptures made by Herman Carl Mueller in 1886–1887, located above the south portico of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis, the capital of the U.S. state of Indiana.

Luigi Persico

Luigi Persico was an Italian neoclassical painter and sculptor.

<i>The Circuit Rider</i>

The Circuit Rider is a bronze sculpture by Alexander Phimister Proctor, located in Capitol Park, east of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, in the United States.

<i>Washakie</i> (McGary)

Washakie, or Chief Washakie, refers to one of several sculptures depicting the leader of the Shoshone people of the same name by Dave McGary.

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Ohio Statehouse)

Christopher Columbus, also known as the Christopher Columbus Discovery Monument, is a c. 1890–1892 copper sculpture depicting Christopher Columbus by Alfonso Pelzer, installed on the Ohio Statehouse grounds, in Columbus, Ohio, United States.

<i>George Washington</i> (Canova) sculpture by Antonio Canova

George Washington was a life-size marble statue of George Washington, done in the style of a Roman general, by the Italian Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova. Commissioned by the State of North Carolina in 1815, it was completed in 1820 and installed in the rotunda of the North Carolina State House on December 24, 1821. The building and the statue were destroyed by fire on June 21, 1831. This work was the only one created by Canova for the United States.

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Saint Paul, Minnesota)

A bronze statue of Christopher Columbus was installed on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1931. The 10-foot statue was created by Italian American Carlo Brioschi.

Columbus murals series of twelve murals at the University of Notre Dame

The Columbus murals are a series of twelve murals depicting Christopher Columbus, painted in the 1880s by Luigi Gregori and displayed in the Main Building at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, US. The murals have been a source of controversy in recent decades for their romanticized portrayal of Columbus and his relationship with Native Americans.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Fryd, Vivienne (2001). Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815-1860. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. pp. 37, 89, 91, 94, 99, 100, 105.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Fryd, Vivien Green (1987), “Two Sculptures for the Capitol: Horatio Greenough's ‘Rescue’ and Luigi Persico's ‘Discovery of America’” American Art Journal , Vol. 19, No. 2 (Spring, 1987), pgs. 17,20-21, 93.
  3. 1 2 3 4 "Persico's Columbus". The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. 15: 95–97. November 1844 via Google Books.
  4. "Discovery of America, (sculpture)". Inventories of American Painting and Sculpture. Retrieved February 14, 2012.
  5. O'Connor, James Francis. "United States Congress, House, 77th Congress." House Resolution, 1st Session, April 14, 1941. p.1-2
  6. Congressional Globe, April 28, 1836, p. 1316.
  7. Fryd, Op. cit., pg 22-24.

Coordinates: 38°53′23″N77°00′31″W / 38.8897°N 77.0086°W / 38.8897; -77.0086