Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
Smithsonian American Art Museum
September 18 - November 22, 2020
By Ed Voves
Alexander von Humboldt was one of the greatest German scientists of all time. During his lifetime, 1769 to 1859, Humboldt was a world-renowned figure. Surprisingly, he is under-appreciated today, especially in the English-speaking world.
A recent exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum attempted to rectify this situation but was bedeviled by the Covid-19 quarantine. Originally scheduled to begin on March 14, 2020, the exhibit finally opened in mid-September. Then, on November 22nd, six weeks before its slated January 3, 2021 end date, it closed and the trove of exhibit treasures were returned to their home museums.
I was one of the fortunate art lovers able to see Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. Instead of encouraging you to visit this exhibit, I find myself - sadly - writing about it in the past tense. However, Alexander von Humboldt's achievements are part of the living legacy of humankind and are not easily dismissed.
In some ways the obstacles which were encountered in presenting this wonderful exhibition recall the many challenges faced by Humboldt during his epic expedition to South America, 1799-1804. Likewise, the shortened length of the exhibition seems ironically in keeping with the mere six weeks which Humboldt was able to spend in the United States. Although Humboldt never explored the frontier regions of the U.S., he made a huge impact during his brief stay in the young American republic.
Humboldt's dates are important to consider in understanding his influence upon the U.S. and indeed the entire world. The year he was born, 1769, witnessed the true beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when James Watt registered for a patent for his design of a steam engine with a separate condenser. Ninety years later, as the world mourned Humboldt, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was published.
Throughout the decades of revolutionary changes which occurred between 1769 to 1859, Humboldt played a highly significant role.
Every branch of the sciences during this pivotal era were transformed by discoveries or educated theories made by Humboldt. From his exacting measurement of the temperature of ocean currents to the study of volcanic action to observations on the atmospheric factors causing tropical storms, Humboldt made important contributions.
Baron Alexander von Humboldt was educated in the precepts of the 18th century Enlightenment. A gifted student of chemistry, he was also interested in the direct study of the natural world. Humboldt's brilliance was quickly recognized. The government of Prussia, the leading state of Germany, appointed the young scholar as inspector of mines in one of its territories and also sent him on diplomatic missions.
Humboldt yearned for wider horizons and, in the company of a French naturalist, Aimé Bonpland, set off late in 1799 to explore the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Beginning with a perilous canoe journey up the Orinoco River into the Amazon rain forest, Humboldt constantly put his life at risk. In the process, Humboldt amassed a mountain-sized haul of specimens of flora and fauna and volumes of meticulously compiled notes.
Symbolically, the climax to Humboldt's quest was an amazing ascent of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, then believed to be the highest mountain in the world. Without proper mountaineering equipment - much less oxygen cylinders - Humboldt and Bonpland scaled Chimborazo to the dizzying height of 18,893 feet, establishing the world's record for mountain climbing for many years thereafter.
The Smithsonian exhibition briefly surveyed Humboldt's adventures in Latin America, displaying the hand-colored chart he made after descending from Chimborazo. The chart, later made into a print, showed the correlation of plant species with climate zones, rising from the floor of the jungle to snow-capped mountain peaks.
With this amazing graphic, Humboldt illustrated his greatest discovery. All of nature was united in a living, organic force he called Naturgemälde.
As the title of the Smithsonian exhibition attests, the primary topic was Humboldt's short visit to the United States and its long train of consequences. The news of his exploits in Latin America reached the U.S. and members of the nation's scientific establishment, led by President Thomas Jefferson, were eager to meet him.
Quite apart from Jefferson's insatiable appetite for scientific information, Humboldt's expedition validated plans already underway for similar American initiatives. In 1803, as Humboldt and Bonpland completed the last of their studies in Mexico, Captain Meriweather Lewis and Lt. William Clark were setting forth to explore the vast Western territory recently purchased from France by Jefferson. Humboldt's audacity - and real scientific achievements - created a template for Americans to utilize in their bold plans to push westward to the Pacific.
Humboldt was hailed as a hero when he reached the United States in May 1804. He was invited by Jefferson to come to the White House, but another highlight of his sojourn in the U.S. was his visit to Peale's Museum in Philadelphia. Charles Willson Peale, the leading American artist of this era, was also a science enthusiast. In 1801, Peale led the effort to "exhume" the bones of a prehistoric mastodon which had been discovered near Newburgh, New York. He then transported the complete skeleton of the mighty beast to Philadelphia where it was reassembled and placed on display.
In an outstanding curatorial "coup," the mastodon skeleton was brought to the Smithsonian from a museum in Germany, where it eventually went after Peale's death.
The "exhumation" of the Mastodon, coming at the same time as Humboldt's achievements, marked the triumph of scientific methodology. It was not just a lucky discovery of rare fossils. Peale later painted a detailed view of the event, complete with water wheel and pulley system, used in dredging the muck from the excavation site.
Peale placed himself in a commanding position in the picture, as might be expected from a self-promoting showman, as he indeed was. But without Peale's ambition and risk-taking, American art and science would not have been ready to take advantage of Humboldt's lead.
Humboldt always expected to return to the U.S. for an expedition similar to his exploits in South America and Mexico. This objective was never realized due to the long years of examining and cataloging the specimens from his journey with Bonpland. Also, the king of Prussia loaded Humboldt with honors, but also piled-on endless court duties which consumed his time and energy.
It has also to be considered that Humboldt did not return to America because he was deeply troubled by the simmering crisis over slavery in the U.S. Humboldt had traveled to Cuba with Bonpland and was horrified by the treatment of African slaves on the Spanish-held island. Also, he saw frequent acts of inhumanity toward the native populations in Latin America.
Although Humboldt deeply admired the democratic institutions of the U.S., he was skeptical of the view of many Americans that slavery and the "Indian problem" would eventually fade away, as the great economic strength of the nation asserted itself. Too much of a diplomat to raise the topic while he was visiting the U.S., Humboldt urged the cause of freedom in his writings upon returning to Europe.
If Humboldt was disappointed with the continuance of African-American slavery in the U.S., his hopes for Latin America were also dashed, following the revolt against Spain led by Simon Bolivar. Everywhere, in Europe as well, the cause of freedom during the early decades of the 1800's seemed to be in retreat.
Humboldt retired to his study to write a book testifying to the power of Naturgemälde. In this great, multi-volume work, Humboldt aimed to convince the general reading public of the unity of creation where "organic powers are incessantly at work."
Humboldt's book was entitled Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Volume I, the product of years of work, was published in 1845. In its pages, Humboldt proclaimed:
Nature is a unity in diversity of phenomena: a harmony, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes: one great whole animated by the breath of life.
These words were reassuring, scientifically and spiritually. Humboldt's thesis especially appealed to the citizens of the United States, grappling with complex social issues. Humboldt's ideals were reflected in the paintings of the Hudson River School. One of these influential artists, Frederick E. Church (1826-1900) embraced Humboldt's creed with special fervor.
Church had studied painting with Thomas Cole, who had raised landscape painting in the U.S. almost to the status of religion. When Cole died in 1848, Church was poised to take up his mantle as the prophet-painter of American nature. But in 1853, he made the unexpected move of traveling to South America, following in the footsteps of Humboldt.
The Smithsonian exhibition displayed an impressive array of Church's drawings, oil sketches and finished paintings.
Special emphasis in the exhibit was given to Church's prolonged efforts to depict Mount Chimborazo. This mountain, the scene of Humboldt's mountaineering exploits, came to obsess Church to the point that he repeated Humboldt's perilous climb.
In 1857, Church returned to South America, determined to paint a huge work which would evoke the atmosphere and ambiance of the Andes. Chimborazo would feature in Church's magnum opus, Heart of the Andes, though it was not the focus of the work. Instead, Church presented a "spiritual topography" rather than a depiction of a specific locale.
This huge work, in its finished form, is one of the key paintings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection. It is too fragile to be transported to other museums for special exhibitions, but the Smithsonian presented a special audio-visual study exploring how Church created his masterpiece.
Church intended to take Heart of the Andes to Germany to show Humboldt, writing to a friend:
The "Andes" will probably be on its way to Europe before your return to the City ... [The] principal motive in taking the picture to Berlin is to have the satisfaction of placing before Humboldt a transcript of the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago—and which he had pronounced to be the finest in the world.
Sadly, Humboldt died before Church was able to travel to Europe, but the painting created a sensation when it was displayed in London.
Church followed the great success of Heart of the Andes with "sublime landscapes" set in the United States. During the Civil War years, Church's paintings, extolling the unity of nature, likewise testified to the ideals of political union and individual freedom.
Humboldt's Naturgemälde became so much an American ideal that it could easily be forgotten that a foreign scholar had originally planted the seed of America the "beautiful." When looking at the sympathetic portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin, several of which were on display in the Smithsonian exhibit, or Carlton Watkins' incredible photo, Cascade, Nevada Falls, Yosemite, California, there is no denying the influence of Humboldt.
Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture was an outstanding exhibition. Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, deserves special credit for organizing the exhibit and keeping it open for at least part of its scheduled run. Along with the excellent recent biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, by Andre Wulf, the Smithsonian exhibit has re-established Humboldt's preeminent position as one of the most influential scientists of all time - and especially so for the United States.
Reflecting upon Humboldt's legacy, I could not help but smile - inwardly - about the "science as the last frontier" rhetoric which used to be a common mantra of TV documentaries. Alexander von Humboldt was so far ahead of his time that we are still catching up with him. If humankind ever does reach that "last frontier," I have the feeling that Humboldt will already have reached there ahead of us.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Humboldt and the United States exhibition images courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Introductory Image: Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), 1806. Oil on canvas:49 5/8 x 36 3/8 in. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany / Klaus Goeken / Art Resource, NY.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Charles Willson Peale, Portrait of Baron von Humboldt, 1804. Oil on canvas: 21 x 17 in., The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The image of the Baron Von Humboldt is used by kind permission of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photograph by Constance Mensh, Copyright 2019 by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, Géographie des plantes Équinoxiales: Tableau physique des Andes et Pays voisins, from Essai sur la géographie des plantes, 1805. Hand colored print: 24 x 36 in., Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, © Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson, 1805. Oil on linen: 28 x 23 1/2 in., New-York Historical Society, Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, Photography ©New-York Historical Society.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Gallery view of the Humboldt and the United States exhibition, showing the Skeleton of the Mastodon, excavated 1801–2 by Charles Willson Peale. Bone, wood, and papier mâché: approx. 118 × 177 × 65 in., Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany.
Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, ca. 1806–08. Oil on canvas: 49 x 61 1/2 in. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Gift of Bertha White in memory of her husband, Harry White, BCLM-MA.5911.
John Quincy Adams Ward, The Freedman, 1863. Bronze: 19 1/2 x 14 11/16 x 9 5/8 in.Boston Athenæum, gift of Elizabeth Frothingham (Mrs. William L.) Parker, 1922, Photograph by Jerry L. Thompson for the Boston Athenæum
After Eduard Hildebrandt, Humboldt in His Library, 1856. Chromolithograph on paper: 18 5/8 x 26 5/8 in. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert F. Norfleet Jr., Photo: Travis Fullerton, Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) Frederic Edwin Church's Cayambe, 1858. Oil on canvas: 30.48 x 45.72 cm (12 x 18 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Martha C. Karolik # 47.1237
Frederic Edwin Church, Mount Chimborazo through Rising Mist and Clouds, 1857. Oil and pencil on paperboard: 13 9/16 x 21 1/8 in. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-824, Photo © Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Frederic Edwin Church, Study for “The Heart of the Andes,” 1858. Oil on canvas: 10 1/4 x 18 1/4 in. Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1981.47.A.B.
Ed Voves, Photo (2020) George Catlin's Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Warrior, 1844-1845. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr. 1985.66.521 and Ru-ton-ye-wee-ma, Strutting Pigeon, Wife of White Cloud, 1844. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.525
Carleton E. Watkins, Cascade, Nevada Falls, Yosemite, California, ca. 1861. Albumen silver print:15 5/8 x 20 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase from the Charles Isaacs Collection made possible in part by the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 1994.91.276.
Henry Berger, Bust of Humboldt, 1860. Painted plaster: 27 x 16 x 12 1/2 in., The National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.