Photo: Mexico City Statue
The indefatigable Prussian explorer Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) brought South America to the salons and houses of Europe in the 19th century. He became the greatest figure in the natural sciences of his era and an inspiration for future travelers/visitors.
Charles Darwin described him as “The greatest traveling scientist who ever lived.”
Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt traveled to the Americas, exploring it as a natural scientist. Later his description of the journey was written up and published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years. He was one of the first scientists to propose that South America and Africa were once joined.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture” is the first exhibition to examine Humboldt’s impact on five spheres of American cultural development: the visual arts, sciences, literature, politics and exploration, between 1804 and 1903. It will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s main building March 20 through Aug. 16. The museum is the sole venue for the exhibition. It is organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the museum.
Humboldt (1769–1859) was a renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer and one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. He lived to his 90th year, published more than 36 books, traveled across four continents and wrote well over 25,000 letters to an international network of colleagues and admirers. In 1804, after traveling five years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent six weeks in the United States. In these six weeks, Humboldt—through a series of lively exchanges of ideas about the arts, science, politics and exploration with influential figures such as President Thomas Jefferson and artist Charles Willson Peale—shaped American perceptions of nature and the way American cultural identity became grounded in the natural world.
The exhibition centers on the fine arts as a lens through which to understand how deeply intertwined Humboldt’s ideas were with America’s emerging identity. It includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures, maps, and artifacts as well as a video introduction to Humboldt and his connections to the Smithsonian through an array of current projects and initiatives.
“Eleanor Jones Harvey has dusted for Humboldt’s fingerprints on American art and culture and found them nearly everywhere, including the founding of the Smithsonian Institution,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “The Smithsonian, with its vast range of disciplines and multitude of collections and ongoing research, is the perfect setting for this expansive evaluation of Humboldt’s impact in the United States. Humboldt encouraged American landscape painters to embrace our natural wonders as emblems of our cultural identity. As a country, we have much to thank Humboldt for, as reflected in the countless namesake places and species across our land. Most importantly, Humboldt’s influence on America’s love of and protection of nature is revealed in other prominent Americans’ legacies, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson.”
The exhibition places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence with artworks that reveal how the American wilderness became emblematic of the country’s distinctive character. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe—his concern for deforestation and climate change, his taxonomic curiosity centered on New World species of flora and fauna and his belief that the arts were as important as the sciences for conveying the resultant sense of wonder in the interlocking aspects of our planet—make this a project evocative of how art illuminates some of the issues central to stewardship of the planet today. Artworks by Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Frederic Church, Eastman Johnson, Samuel F.B. Morse, Charles Willson Peale, John Rogers, William James Stillman and John Quincy Adams Ward, among others, will be on display. Church, an esteemed painter of the Hudson River school, features prominently in the exhibition. He idolized Humboldt, going as far as trekking in the naturalist’s footsteps in South America.
The exhibition also includes the original “Peale Mastodon” skeleton, on loan from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, with ties to Humboldt, Peale and an emerging American national identity in the early 19th century. Its inclusion in the exhibition represents a homecoming for the important fossil that has been in Europe since 1847, and emphasizes that natural history and natural monuments bond Humboldt with the United States. The skeleton, excavated in 1801 in upstate New York, was the most complete to be unearthed at that time. Its discovery became a symbol of civic pride. In 1804, Humboldt was honored with a dinner beneath the mastodon while it was exhibited in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Two paintings featuring the fossil—“Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806–08) and “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) both by Peale—are on display nearby in the galleries.
“This project sets out to recapture the immediate, sustained and profound impact of Humboldt’s ideas and understand how they shaped the works made by some of the most influential American artists of the 19th century who deliberately wove into their major paintings messages about American cultural identity,” Harvey said. “Collectively their efforts created a nature-based aesthetic so well recognized today that its roots are obscured, much in the way Humboldt’s concept of ‘Cosmos’ or ‘unity of nature’ has been accepted as received wisdom. That collaborative model lies at the heart of Humboldt’s enterprise and at that of the Smithsonian as well.”
The exhibition features a digital exploration of Church’s famous landscape, “Heart of the Andes” (1859), enabling visitors to engage with the painting’s details in new ways. The wealth of detail is a painterly extrapolation of Humboldt’s plant geography map. The mountain at the center of the work, Chimborazo, was referred to as “Humboldt’s Mountain.” The narrated, 2.5D animated projection enables visitors to appreciate the connections between Church’s painting and Humboldt’s ideas.
The exhibition concludes with a “One Smithsonian” Interpretive Lounge where visitors can explore the contemporary connections between Humboldt and the work being done across the Smithsonian today. Featured experts include Ximena Velez-Zuazo, marine managing director of the Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Program at the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute’s Center of Conservation and Sustainability; Kristina Anderson-Teixeira, forest ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute; Mary Elliott, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and a member of the Slave Wrecks Project International leadership team; and Sofia Elian, graphic designer at the Smithsonian Science Education Center.
The museum is hosting a day-long symposium, titled “Art, Nature and Environmental Awareness: Alexander von Humboldt’s Legacy,” in connection with the opening of the exhibition Friday, March 20, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The program features presentations by historians of art and science, and contemporary artists that address how Humboldt’s view of nature as an interconnected web has influenced the appreciation of the landscape and guided our stewardship of this planet in the face of climate change. Speakers include Randall Griffin, professor of art history at Southern Methodist University; Harvey; Thomas Lovejoy, professor of environmental science at George Mason University; Dario Robleto, artist-in-residence at the University of Houston; George Steinmann, artist, musician, researcher; and Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.
The program is free and open to the public. Advance registration is required beginning Feb. 24. Additional information and the link to register are available at americanart.si.edu/events.
Humboldt and his companion Aimée Bonpland reached Quito in 1802, after a long journey through Colombia. Their stay was marked by the ascent of the Pichincha and Chimborazo volcanoes. Humboldt and his party reached an altitude of 19,286 feet on Chimborazo, a world record at the time. Through his attentive study of the volcanoes he encountered in Ecuador, he showed that they fell naturally into linear groups, presumably corresponding with vast subterranean fissures. This in turn, would lead to the theory of plate tectonics.
Following his time in the Andes, Humboldt returned to the Amazon on an expedition to find the source of the great river.
As Simón Bolívar said of him “Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors. He is the true discoverer of America.”
In Quito Humboldt received a stunning setback to his plans. He learned that the Baudin expedition would not be calling on the South American coast after all. The hoped-for rendezvous – which Humboldt had traveled more than eight months and some eight hundred backbreaking miles to achieve – would never happen. Yet Humboldt preferred to focus on the positive … Thrown back on his own resources, Humboldt immersed himself in his study of the Andes with a ferocity that left little time for anything else.
– Humboldt’s Cosmos
Elsewhere on the Web
Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America – Project Gutenberg
Alexander von Humboldt – the remarkable career of the Prussian naturalist