Augustus Heaton, little known today, was a painter of portraits and historical subjects. Born in Philadelphia, he trained there at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under the history painter Peter F. Rothermel, and in Paris at the École des Béaux-Arts under the noted artist Alexandre Cabanel. Later he studied with Léon Bonnat, an enormously successful French portraitist. Heaton taught at the Pennsylvania Academy from 1868 to 1878, then returned to Paris until 1884. His later years were spent primarily in Washington, D.C.
The Recall of Columbus, which Heaton considered his greatest work, was begun in his Paris studio and finished in Rome in the studio of American sculptor Chauncey Ives. The painting was sent to the U.S. Capitol in 1884 for “examination” by the Joint Committee on the Library and purchased later that year for $3,000 through the efforts of Committee Chairman, Senator John Sherman of Ohio. Heaton copyrighted The Recall of Columbus in 1891 as the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the New World approached. The painting was exhibited at the Columbian Historical Exposition in Madrid in 1892, and the following year it was displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It soon became widely known when it was reproduced as one of 16 Columbus commemorative stamps issued in 1893 to coincide with the delayed opening of the Chicago exposition.
Although Heaton had confirmed visual details of the story by visiting the Columbus site in Granada and by making a careful study of period costume, his painting is a typical example of the idiosyncratic approach to historical subjects favored by American painters, an approach that valued moral lesson above stirring action. Like so many of his colleagues, Heaton chose–-indeed sought out–-a relatively static subject within Washington Irving’s teeming and often dramatic narrative of Columbus’s life and voyages.
Here, as a royal messenger intercepts the sailor with the startling but welcome news, there is no spurring in speed, no hastening with alacrity, not even a turning of the reins to be seen. Instead, every one of the six figures and five animals remain stock-still, gestures frozen. The only indication of a response to the letter in Columbus’s hand is his dawning smile. The low, wide format with its strongly angled walls is the proscenium for this cast of historical actors. The scene itself, verified through the artist’s study trip to Spain, is carefully portrayed. So is the mule pack bulging with maps, books, and a globe, which identifies the hero. His humble state and that of his son and their companion are underscored by their mules, which contrast with the fine steed of the queen’s messenger. The crippled peasant and his daughter resting against the wall are the necessary witnesses to this selected moment of history. Heaton depicts the event as a motionless moment of moral triumph, an icon of genius vindicated.
At least 16 of Heaton’s works are known to survive, although a monumental group portrait–-The Promoters of the New Congressional Library–-appears to have been lost. The artist wrote several books and published a literary newsletter, The Nutshell.