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

A painting of a bridge made from nature.

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.

Description

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 Eleanor Jones 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.The catalogue is co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Princeton University Press; it is available for purchase (90) online.

 

NoteAlexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture was originally scheduled to open to the public on March 20, 2020. The Smithsonian closed all its museums on March 14 as a public health precaution due to the global pandemic. SAAM was closed from March 14 through September 17, 2020. The exhibition finally opened to the public on September 18, only to close again on November 23, 2020, and then re-open for a final run from May 14 through July 11, 2021. 

Visiting Information

September 18, 2020 — November 22, 2020 and May 14, 2021 — July 112021
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
Free Admission

Publications

A book cover with a natural bridge painting.
Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
Explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt left a lasting impression on American visual arts, sciences, literature, and politics.

Videos

Credit

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Joanne and Richard Brodie, Billings and John Cay, Fern and Hersh Cohen, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Marie M. Halff, Liliane A. and Christian W.E. Haub, Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Kandeo Asset Management, Maureen and Gene Kim, LATAM Trade Capital, Robert Lehman Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, The Lunder Foundation – Peter and Paula Lunder Family, Provost of the Smithsonian, Lucy S. Rhame, Holly and Nick Ruffin, Jacquelyn and William Sheehan, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards, Terra Foundation for American Art, and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The accompanying catalogue is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

The Henry Luce Foundation logo
The Robert Lehman Foundation logo
This is the logo for the Terra Foundation for American Art.
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SAAM Stories

A portrait of a man sitting.
Exhibitions02/06/2020
Meet Alexander von Humboldt, the singular superstar of the 1800s
A photograph of a woman.
Katie Hondorf
Public Affairs Specialist
A painting of a mountain
Exhibitions04/22/2020
Humboldt’s ideas on art, nature, and philosophy helped to shape American artists, including the influential Hudson River school painters
A photograph of a woman.
Katie Hondorf
Public Affairs Specialist
A photograph of a book open on a table.
04/23/2020
How a graphic designer at SAAM was inspired to incorporate Humboldt's ideas about nature into the exhibition catalogue
A photograph of a woman.
Katie Hondorf
Public Affairs Specialist
A photograph of a man standing next to mastodon fossils
Exhibitions04/24/2020
What's a mastodon doing at SAAM? Dr. Advait Mahesh Jukar, a Deep Time Fellow and Paleontologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, answers our questions.
Libby Weiler
IT Specialist - External Affairs and Digital Strategies
A photograph of a mastodon fossil inside a building.
Conservation04/29/2020
Conservator Ariel O'Connor unearths the mysteries behind Charles Willson Peale’s mastodon.
A photograph of a woman standing in an art gallery with busts behind her.
Ariel O'Connor
Objects Conservator
A painting of clouds
Exhibitions05/04/2020
Looking back at a remembered road trip to Frederic Church's house, Olana, in celebration of the artist's 194th birthday and the exhibition, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
A photograph of a woman.
Katie Hondorf
Public Affairs Specialist
An animation of a man holding a telescope
Exhibitions09/30/2020
“I’ll take Alexander von Humboldt for $500, Alex.”
A photograph of a woman.
Katie Hondorf
Public Affairs Specialist
Photograph of trees and a waterfall
Exhibitions04/22/2021
We take a look at the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on nature as well as an excerpt from Eleanor Jones Harvey’s exhibition catalogue focusing on Carleton E. Watkins.
Katie Hondorf
A woman looks up at a bust.
Senior Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey takes readers behind the scenes of an exhibition’s 17-month run
A photograph of Eleanor Harvey
Eleanor Jones Harvey
Senior Curator (19th-Century Art)

3D Tour

“Harvey’s exhibition. . . connects dots in masterful ways, linking art, science and politics.”

—Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post

“It's so timely, the importance of science and inquiry and the creativity it inspires.”

—Peter Winant, WETA's Around Town

Podcast

An image with plants and nature

Listen to "The Last Man Who Knew It All,” episode 2 from Sidedoor: A Podcast from the Smithsonian.

In The News

Online Gallery

Artists

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Albert Bierstadt
born Solingen, Germany 1830-died New York City 1902

Born in Germany. Immigrated to the United States as a child. Paintings show an idealistic view of the American wilderness.

Karl Bodmer
Swiss, born Riesbach, Switzerland 1809-died Barbizon, France 1893
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George Catlin
born Wilkes-Barre, PA 1796-died Jersey City, NJ 1872

"If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me from visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America." With these words George Catlin staked his artistic claim.

Frederic Edwin Church
born Hartford, CT 1826-died New York City 1900

Church and Thomas Cole, the two most esteemed painters of the Hudson River school, were associated from 1844 to 1846 as pupil and master.

Eastman Johnson
born Lovell, ME 1824-died New York City 1906

Born in Maine, lived in New York City. A leading genre painter of evocative outdoor scenes, also known for family portraits and other groups that demonstrate his growth as an artist.

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Samuel F. B. Morse
born Charlestown, MA 1791-died New York City 1872
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Charles Willson Peale
born Queen Anne's County, MD 1741-died Philadelphia, PA 1827

Born 15 April 1741, Queen Anne's County, Md. 1750, death of father. 1751, family moved to Annapolis. 1754, apprenticed to a saddler. 1761, established a shop in Annapolis. 1762, married Rachel Brewer.

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John Rogers
born Salem, MA 1829-died New Canaan, CT 1904

Born in Massachusetts, later lived in Chicago and New York City.

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William James Stillman
born Schenectady, NY 1828-died Surrey, England 1901

William James Stillman was a painter, journalist, art critic, and photographer. He spent most of his life traveling between Europe and America, painting and working as a correspondent for London and New York newspapers.

John Quincy Adams Ward
born Urbana, OH 1830-died New York City 1910