De Soto Raising the Cross on the Banks of the Mississippi

Peter Frederick Rothermel

Celebrated American history painter and Academy instructor, Peter Rothermel painted several canvases depicting New World explorers Hernando de Soto, Cortés, and Christopher Columbus. In search of gold, Hernando de Soto led the first European expedition to the Mississippi River in 1541. This dramatic scene likely tapped into mid-century interest in American history while helping to legitimate the expansionist philosophy of Manifest Destiny. A reviewer in 1852 presumed that the picture represented the “first religious service in America.” Rothermel’s composition asserts the power of faith in de Soto’s mission while deemphasizing the violence implicit in bringing Christianity to the New World and its indigenous community. Contemporary interest in de Soto was great enough that the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia staged a play called “The Tragedy of de Soto” in April, 1852. Appropriately enough, an actor, Edwin Forrest, once owned and may have commissioned this painting.
Date of Birth
Oil on canvas
40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm.)
Accession #
Credit Line
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Funds provided by the Henry C. Gibson Fund and Mrs. Elliott R. Detchon