Alexander von Humboldt and Heart of the Andes”: An Immersive Journey

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  • ELEANOR JONES HARVEY: This is “Heart of the Andes,” a painting by the American artist Frederic Church. He painted it as a tribute to Alexander von Humboldt. It is the artist’s largest and most ambitious painting. It is heavily influenced by Humboldt’s own work, in particular his plant geography map. Humboldt called this map his Naturgemälde or “picture of nature,” and Humboldt filled it with the data relating plants to their environments that he recorded in South America. Church used the Naturgemälde as a template for this painting, conveying a similar wealth of visual detail.

    50 years after Humboldt explored the Andes Mountains of South America, Church journeyed there himself using Humboldt’s writings as a guide and in many cases literally following in his footsteps. Like Humboldt’s Naturgemälde, Church’s painting doesn’t depict a single place. Instead, it covers the same range of territory from the Amazon River basin to the snow-capped summit of Mount Chimborazo. This is Church’s visualization of Humboldt’s plant geography map.

    Church painted over 100 identifiable plants in “Heart of the Andes,” many of them the same plants that Humboldt cataloged during his South American expedition, including the arum, the passion flower, and the morning glory vine.

    Church also personalized this landscape signing his name on this tree trunk. Notice the tiny, detailed brush strokes that Church uses here to create each plant. Mark Twain saw the painting and marveled, “Your third visit, will find your brain gasping and straining with futile efforts to take all the wonder in and understand how such a miracle could have been conceived and executed by human brain and human hands.”

    The abundance of life in this painting is not solely botanical. Church painted the local people he met during his two journeys to South America. Church further enlivens the scene with a small village at the center of the painting. Nestled along the river, the village is part of a unified whole where people are living in harmony with nature.

    During his travels, Humboldt always sought out local guides, respecting indigenous people’s understanding of nature as being far superior to that of their colonial rulers. It was with the help of these guides that Humboldt had climbed Mount Chimborazo in 1802, which at the time was considered the highest mountain in the world. He did so dressed in 18th century clothes and without access to supplemental oxygen. In Humboldt’s words, “We see Chimborazo appear like a cloud at the horizon. It detaches itself from the neighboring summits and towers over the whole chain of the Andes like that majestic dome produced by the genius of Michelangelo.” Humboldt ascended to an elevation of 19,413 feet, a mountaineering record that lasted for 30 years.

    By the time Frederic Church first saw Chimborazo in 1853, it was known as Humboldt’s mountain. In many ways, “Heart of the Andes” is Humboldt’s picture. In fact, Church planned to send the painting to Berlin for Humboldt to see. Sadly, Humboldt had died at the age of 89 just days after Church completed the painting. “Heart of the Andes” is a visual summation of Humboldt’s influence on Frederic Church and a testament to the explorer’s deep and sustained influence on American art.

    Explore the connections between naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes with this immersive 2.5D digital experience. Projected at the painting's original scale in the exhibition Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this journey offers extreme close-up views of Church's South American landscape.