The monument to Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) by the Spanish artist Jeronimo Suñol is one of several monuments to historical figures located along the Mall.
Funds for the monument were raised by members of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, a group interested in making connections between New York’s past and the present. The president of the Society, General James G. Wilson, was also instrumental in adding the monument to Fitz-Green Halleck on the Mall.
When Columbus was installed in 1894, critics of the monument disliked Suñol’s choice of religious and imperialist imagery. Columbus gazes toward the heavens as if receiving direction from God; in his right hand he clutches a Spanish flag whose pole rests on a globe and is topped with a cross. The statue is a smaller replica of one Suñol made for the city of Madrid, Spain.
Christopher Columbus was one of many monuments to the explorer created for sites across the country to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his voyage to the Americas, which culminated in the World’s Fair known as the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. But the roots of Columbus’s popularity had much earlier origins. During the 18th century, many American leaders and cultural figures adopted him as a non-British model for establishing a foundational American identity based on individualism and ingenuity. This resulted in the naming of many streets, towns, and schools in his honor. At the turn of the 20th century, he also became a symbol of Italian-American pride. An additional monument to Columbus is located at Columbus Circle. Another was planned for the Park’s southeast corner, also for the 400th anniversary, but never realized.
Since the 1970s, the life and legacy of Columbus have been re-examined by scholars and the general public. He is no longer popularly used as a symbol of America, and critics have objected to the veneration of a historic figure and event that led to the exploitation and genocide of indigenous people. As a result, many municipalities have decided to recontextualize or remove their Columbus monuments.