Edmé-Alexis-Alfred Dehodencq started his artistic training at Léon Cogniet's academy in Paris. He referred to himself as the last of the Romantics and from an early age was moved by the writing of Byron and Chateaubriand. He was wounded in the arm during the Revolution of 1848 and was sent to convalesce in the Pyrenees before moving to Madrid. In Madrid, he was deeply influenced by the artists of the Spanish Golden Age, particularly Velázquez and Goya and was introduced to the Duke of Montpensier, who became a patron and protector.
In 1853, Dehodencq traveled to Morocco and returned there every year over the next decade. With his knowledge of Byron and Chateaubriand, the country fueled his romantic ambition. Like Delacroix and Chassériau before him, Dehodencq made endless sketches capturing the teeming life of the Moroccan streets. His keen attention to detail, however, distinguishes his work from that of his predecessors. Dehodencq's Moroccan crowds are composed of carefully delineated individuals, not the generalized figures frequently found in Delacroix's work.
He returned to settle in Paris in 1863 and exhibited the present painting at the Salon a year later. In Christopher Columbus at the Monastery of Rabida, Dehodencq portrayed himself as Columbus with his eldest son, Diego, before the monastery. In 1484, Columbus and Diego had just left Lisbon in fear of persecution. Tradition has it that they arrived in Spain at Palos de la Frontera almost destitute and sought the assistance of the monks at the Monastery of Santa Maria de La Rabida. Columbus met Friar Juan Perez, a confessor of Queen Isabella, and Friar Antonio de Marchena to whom he confided his ambition to explore. This association led to an audience Queen Isabella which took place in May of 1486 at the Alcazar of the royal city of Cordoba.
There are similarities between the lives of the great explorer and Dehodencq: the artist had just returned from Spain to Paris after an absence of more than a decade. He found his long absence had pushed him to the fringe of current art movements and in the present painting it is clear how exhausted Columbus is from his travels, and maybe the artist found a kindred spirit when he decided to depict himself as Columbus. According to the artist's biographer, Gahr Séailles, Dehodencq painted two versions of Christopher Columbus at the Monastery of Rabida. The present work is the larger version exhibited in the Salon of 1864 and was ultimately bought by the emperor Napoléon III.