Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture

March 20, 2020 – August 16, 2020

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, NW)
A painting of a bridge made from nature.

Frederic Edwin Church, The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852, oil on canvas, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Gift of Thomas Fortune Ryan

Alexander von Humboldt was arguably the most important naturalist of the 19th century. He lived for 90 years, published more than 36 books, traveled across three 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 on Humboldt’s lasting influence on the way we think about our relationship to our environment. 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.

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, grounded in an appreciation of nature. The exhibition includes more than 100 paintings, sculptures, maps, and artifacts. Artworks by Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Frederic Church, Asher Durand, 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.

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 will accompany the exhibition. Written by Eleanor Jones Harvey, it will explore the many connections and present new scholarship on Humboldt’s lasting influence on American art and culture and how his ideas helped shape the way we think about our relationship to our environment. The catalogue will be co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Princeton University Press.

Credit

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Billings and John Cay, Fern and Hersh Cohen, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Marie M. Halff, Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Henry Luce Foundation, The Lunder Foundation – Peter and Paula Lunder Family, Lucy S. Rhame, Holly and Nick Ruffin, Jacquelyn and William Sheehan, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards, and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

The accompanying catalogue is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

Three logos: Terra Foundation, Luce Foundation, and Futhermore.