Enfilade

Exhibition | Alexander von Humboldt and the United States

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on November 23, 2020

Now on view at SAAM:

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, 18 September 2020 — 3 January 2021

Organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey

Renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century. He lived for 90 years, 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 four years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent exactly 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 our relationship with the environment.

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence on the way we think about our relationship to the natural world. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe—his concern for 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 our relationship with nature and our stewardship of this planet.

Charles Willson Peale, Self-Portrait with Mastodon Bone, 1824, oil on canvas, 26 × 22 inches (New-York Historical Society, Purchase, James B. Wilbur Fund).

This exhibition will be the first 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 centers on the fine arts as a lens through which to understand how deeply intertwined Humboldt’s ideas were with America’s emerging identity. The exhibition 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.

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. The installation features a digital exploration of Frederic 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 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 nineteenth century. Its inclusion in the exhibition represents a homecoming for this important fossil that has been in Europe since 1847, and emphasizes that natural history and natural monuments bond Humboldt with the United States.

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture is organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A major catalogue, written by Harvey, accompanies the exhibition. The book shows how Humboldt inspired a network of like-minded individuals who would go on to embrace the spirit of exploration, decry slavery, advocate for the welfare of Native Americans and extol America’s wilderness as a signature component of the nation’s sense of self. Harvey traces how Humboldt’s ideas influenced the transcendentalists and the landscape painters of the Hudson River School, and laid the foundations for the Smithsonian, the Sierra Club, and the National Park Service.

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 448 pages, ISBN: 978-0691200804, £62 / $75.