A Portrait of Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés: A Gift to the First Lady

Late in James K. Polk’s presidency, his wife Sarah Childress Polk received an unusual gift that implicitly equated expansionism with imperialism.

As a tribute to President Polk’s success as commander in chief during the Mexican-American War, General William J. Worth gave the first lady a life-size, three-quarter-length portrait of the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
Copied from the unattributed original that hung at the Hospital de Jesús Nazareno in Mexico City, the painting called to mind the U.S. Army’s advance from the port of Vera Cruz to the Mexican capital along the mountainous route that Cortés had traveled three centuries earlier.

Worth’s gift reflected the spirit of the times.

Since the 1843 publication of William H. Prescott’s hugely popular History of the Conquest of Mexico, the story of sixteenth-century Spain’s clash with the Aztecs had captured America’s imagination. The Mexican War further stirred the public’s fascination with Cortés and Montezuma. Supporters and critics of President Polk’s expansionist policies celebrated or decried the war as the “second conquest of Mexico.”

After leaving the White House and returning to Tennessee in 1849, the Polks displayed the Cortés portrait prominently in the front hall of their downtown Nashville mansion. There the painting would evoke poignant memories for the former first lady. On the day in May when she hung the portrait, she received the news that General Worth had died of cholera in San Antonio. (3) A month later, James K. Polk also died of cholera. Throughout Sarah Polk’s forty-two-year widowhood, the painting was a frequent focus of her reminiscences. In an 1884 interview, she told a Nashville journalist, “I regard the acquisition of Texas, and the results following the Mexican war, that is, the adding of California and New Mexico to the territory of the United States, as among the most important events in the history of this country.”

John Holtzapple has served as the Director of the President James K. Polk Home & Museum for over 35 years.

This article was originally published in White House History Number 33 Summer 2013.

© 2024 President James K. Polk Home and Museum

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