Curator’s Video Tour of “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture”
This exhibition reveals how the influential naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) shaped American perceptions of nature and the way American cultural identity became grounded in our relationship with the environment.
The first question we have to address is, what does Humboldt have to do with American art and culture? Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian scientist who lived eighty-nine years, traveled over forty thousand miles on four continents, wrote thirty-six books, kept up a correspondence with twenty-five thousand individuals, slept four hours a night, called coffee “concentrated sunbeams,” and spent exactly six weeks in the United States. But the timing of that six weeks and the people that he met helped shape American art and culture for the rest of the nineteenth century.
So, we wanted to help you out with who is Humboldt. We know that a lot of people recognize he’s not an artist in and of himself, but we wanted you to see his friends — Thomas Jefferson — the people who admired him — Frederick Douglass — the people who were inspired by him — Carl Sagan, Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir — all of the things that are named for Humboldt in this country as an act of homage to a man who was one of the most widely and profoundly admired men of the nineteenth century. And once you’ve absorbed Humboldt’s impact, it’s time to then meet him, in a portrait that was done shortly after his return to Europe after his trip to the United States.
This is probably the best-known portrait of Alexander von Humboldt, made shortly after his return from five years in the Americas, mostly time spent in South America and in Mexico. But at the end of that trip, Humboldt was convinced to make a detour to the United States. Humboldt really wanted to meet the third president, Thomas Jefferson. They shared a lot in common, and Humboldt wrote Jefferson a letter in which he admired Jefferson’s commitment to American democracy. He had read Jefferson’s book, the “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and they shared a particular passion for the bones of the recently discovered mammoth, the largest terrestrial creature, at that point, known to man. Jefferson was delighted, and invited Humboldt to come join him in Washington, DC. All of the works of art that you see in this next room speak to that six-week trip, to Humboldt’s admiration for the United States, to his growing friendship with Thomas Jefferson, and to the man who escorted Humboldt around Philadelphia and Washington, DC, the artist Charles Willson Peale.
What you see here are works of art that help us understand that friendship. One of the things that Humboldt brought with him that was so important was this map. It was a picture that Humboldt had made after having spent a year in the archives in Mexico that showed Jefferson exactly what he had acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was probably the single most important geopolitical advantage Jefferson could have had in negotiating the new border between Spain and the United States. It’s an incredibly detailed and beautiful copy that has been in the State Department and is now in the Library of Congress. Jefferson was thrilled that Humboldt was willing to support the political expansion into the interior of North America, that he was equally an admirer of American natural history and American politics. And so the two of them had a lot to talk about.
The portraits you see here show them at the age at which they met — Jefferson in his sixties, Humboldt in his thirties — and as I said, it was the artist Charles Willson Peale who had the delightful job of escorting Humboldt around the scientific community in Philadelphia, and his political community in Washington, DC. So, when they came to Washington, Jefferson, Humboldt, and Charles Willson Peale had plenty of time to converse about the state of the nation, its natural history, and its art. When Peale painted “The Artist in His Museum,” a summation of his own life, he shows the mastodon, the mammoth, behind the curtain, he shows George Washington’s portrait at the upper left above a case with a bald eagle — a bit of American symbolism — and before Humboldt left for France, Humboldt’s portrait would join those of American luminaries in Peale’s Museum. It is as if we had already adopted him as one of our own.
Before Humboldt left for Paris, there was a celebratory dinner underneath the very mastodon skeleton that you see here. This is the first complete skeleton of a mastodon. Peale oversaw putting it together and placing it on view in 1801. 1802 became the year of the mammoth. It was the mammoth cheese given to the mammoth president. It was a time of celebration where mammoth became the adjective that described America’s ambitions: large, strong, and impressive. There was only one problem: the mammoth turned out to be extinct. Jefferson wasn’t very happy about that, and in fact, he had sent Lewis and Clark out west, in part, to find living evidence that the mastodon still existed. The works, again, speak to the idea of how all of this fits together. Another work of art that Peale made shortly after Humbolt’s visit is the “Exhumation of the Mastodon,” literally a landscape and a history picture showing you how the bones are being lifted out of this pit, assembled on the ground with a template borrowed from an engraving of an elephant, the closest related creature we could think of. This is literally the instruction manual for how to put together a mammoth skeleton. Once it was complete, Titian Ramsay Peale, Charles Willson Peale’s youngest son, made this ink wash drawing, which gives you an idea of what it looked like in their museum. But you’ll notice that you don’t see the tusks or the top of the head, because some of the pieces were missing, and those missing pieces were carved by Philadelphia sculptor William Rush, who ended up helping Charles Willson Peale and his sons piece together a complete skeleton. What we do see here also is, there was a controversy over how the tusks should be oriented. To Charles Willson Peale, they sweep up, like an elephant. His son, Rembrandt, really wanted the mammoth to be carnivorous, and therefore he hoped the tusks swept down, as though it were a saber-tooth cat, and for at least ten years in the Peale Museum, those tusks were reversed. But by the time Peale painted “The Artist in His Museum,” the tusks were back up, properly oriented.
Now, I’ve used the terms “mammoth” and “mastodon” interchangeably, but at the time of Humboldt’s visit, these were all considered mammoths, and mammoth-scale was the kind of adjective of the day. It would take a couple more years until the French scientist Georges Cuvier would tease out a distinction between mammoths and mastodons. He informed Jefferson, “What you have is a mastodon.” Suddenly, the fact that it’s extinct and losing the term “mammoth” meant that this didn’t really seem like the appropriate symbol for American greatness. And so, we began to shift, with Humboldt’s encouragement, to using nature and natural monuments as symbols of our cultural identity. And the first two that we start with are Natural Bridge in Virginia and Niagara Falls in New York, and those are the two paintings you see in this next gallery. One of the interesting things about understanding how we perceive ourselves is to look at maps. And by the 1820s, the cartouche at the bottom of the map of the United States shows Natural Bridge in Virginia and Niagara Falls, as if they actually exist together geographically. So, what we’ve done is telescoped over a thousand miles of American geography in order to get both of our icons in the same picture. The artist who would be most closely associated with Humboldt’s ideas about nature is Frederic Church, and this is his painting of Natural Bridge and of Niagara Falls that you see anchoring this room.
Frederic Church grew up on Humboldt’s writings, and he grew up on Humboldt’s ideas that all of nature is interconnected — that if you find plants of a certain type at the base of the Alps and the Andes, you will probably find them at the base of the Rocky Mountains, that mean temperature will tell you something about the way air currents and water currents move around the globe. Humboldt ended up pulling all of that information together, beginning in a work he called his plant geography map. And this color map shows you how Humboldt took scientific information, aesthetic appreciation of the landscape, and botanical understanding of the altitude at which plants grew in order to begin to create a picture of what he called the “unity of nature.” What Humboldt believed was that a scientist needed to have an aesthetic sense of wonder in nature, and that the artist needed to be scientifically literate to understand what it was that he was painting. Frederic Church was the perfect artist for him, and all of the works that you see in this room are by Frederic Church.
What Church would do in 1853 and 1857 is travel to South America, following, sometimes literally, in Humboldt's footsteps. He used Humboldt’s books as guidebooks. In this painting of Cotopaxi, there is a hacienda in the foreground, which is the same one that Humboldt stayed in. The picture Cotopaxi, the angle on the volcano, is drawn directly from Humboldt’s book, “Views of the Cordilleras,” which really did serve as Frederic Church’s guidebook. Church would read about places at night and then visit them the next day. He also had access to Humboldt's large-scale color engravings in his geographical atlases, and you can see that there’s a similarity between the composition in this engraving and the way that Church has composed Cotopaxi on this side and Cayambe on the other. What Church does is tries deliberately to incorporate what Humboldt wanted, which is color sketches taken from nature, travel diaries, impressions drawn directly from your travels outdoors to inform your major works of art. And so what Church will do in these oil sketches and in these pencil studies is literally begin to amass the scientific and aesthetic evidence that will lead him to painting his finished works of art. Tequendama Falls in Colombia is, in fact, one of the first paintings that Church makes that is a deliberate homage to Alexander von Humboldt. He tried to actually navigate the same path up the Bogotá River to the base of the falls that Humboldt had described in “Views of the Cordilleras,” changing his angle as he looked for exactly the right place to compose his painting. Two of the sketches here are those compositional studies. The individual plants, even the parrot that shows up here in the foreground, all come in Frederic Church’s sketches so that you begin to see how Church’s portfolio gives him a rich source of material for more than one painting. When Church returns home to New York, he begins painting the large-scale works which will make and enhance his reputation. The painting “Niagara Falls,” of course, is one of those great paintings, but it owes as much to Humboldt as Church’s views of South America. Humboldt infused Church’s artistic personality, and from Cotopaxi, to Niagara Falls, to Olana itself, Church’s home on the Hudson River, Frederic Church embodied everything he did with an homage to Humboldt.
This is the study for his major painting dedicated to Humboldt, called “The Heart of the Andes.” The finished painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is six feet by ten feet and includes over one hundred identifiable plants, many of them drawn from Humboldt’s writings. It was Church’s way of taking that plant geography map and blowing it up in scale and giving you a sense of going from the top of Chimborazo down to the Amazon River Basin — five separate environmental zones in one major picture. Church completed the work several days before he was about to send it off to Berlin for Humboldt to see, when he got the news that the great explorer had died. This was, I think, a capstone in Church’s career, and we have a video in the exhibition that goes into great detail, with close-ups on the brushwork, in order to let you explore this painting in a way that Church intended and hoped that Humboldt would.
What we’re going to do now is move to the other side of that theater, and look a little bit at Humboldt the humanitarian.
Alexander von Humboldt was a lifelong abolitionist. He believed in the innate equality of all of the races, and wrote about it often. It was his one point of contention with the United States that we simply could not give up the institution of slavery. As a result, some of Humboldt’s strongest admirers in the United States were the abolitionists, and it’s important for us to understand that aspect of Humboldt’s life.
One of the people who admired Humboldt the most was the explorer John C. Frémont, who ended up taking four different trips across the United States in which he ended up naming as many features for Humboldt as he possibly could. You’ve heard of the Humboldt Mountains, the Humboldt River, the Humboldt Basin, Humboldt County, California, Humboldt, Nevada — all named for Humboldt; all named by Frémont. Humboldt was appreciative of this attention, and when John C. Frémont runs for president in 1856 on an abolitionist platform, Humboldt will support his presidential campaign. But more than that, what Humboldt really admired was the fact that Frémont ran on an abolitionist platform supported in large part by his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, who really was the brains of the operation, and that the two of them together not only admired Humboldt’s writings, but they collected abolitionist sculptures. They had a cast of John Quincy Adams Ward’s “Freedman.” They had casts of John Rogers’s two sculptures, “A Friend in the Swamp,” and “The Slave Auction.” They were friends with the artist Albert Bierstadt, who ended up helping create views of California as a symbol of liberty and of peace after the American Civil War, and this small painting from the MFA Boston was in the 1864 Sanitary Fair, the first of Bierstadt’s views of Yosemite to go on view on the East Coast.
So what was it about Yosemite? Well, in 1864, Abraham Lincoln set aside Yosemite as the first protected national landscape. It would set the tone for what would become the National Park System, and the idea was to preserve an American monument in stone that would symbolize a post-Civil War, reunified nation. As a result, the works you see in this gallery include such things as Albert Bierstadt’s “Cho-Looke, the Yosemite Fall,” but also the works of the photographer Carleton Watkins, who was also a friend of the Frémonts, and whose views of Yosemite were the first ones to be seen by eastern audiences. Carleton Watkins probably did more than any other artist to make Yosemite a symbol of the American West.
Now, when Humboldt was here in 1804, he had paid a call to Mount Vernon. He was interested in the admiration for America’s first president, but what he really wanted to do was to talk to the former enslaved people who had worked with George Washington in order to understand their lives. So, we have this view of Mount Vernon where you see the slave quarters on the backside of the house, rather than viewing it from the portico on the Potomac River. Humboldt seemed deeply moved by that visit, and it was important to him to be able to take advantage of that trip while he was here.
We also have a few artifacts in the exhibition about gifts of Humboldt, photographs, or of transcribed letters that speak to Humboldt the abolitionist as a way of understanding just how ubiquitous Humboldt was in American culture by the middle of the nineteenth century.
But Humboldt’s commitment to equality wasn’t just an issue of American slavery. He was committed to equality of all races, everywhere. Four years in South America, and he insisted on local guides to take him around. He wanted to understand the indigenous wisdom in a particular area, and he carried that over to his interest in North American Native communities as well. Although Humboldt never returned to the United States, he began to send proxies — fellow explorers — to the United States to really help bring that information back to him, and the most significant of those was Prince Maximilian zu Wied, a Prussian ethnographer and naturalist, who, with the artist Karl Bodmer, spent two years in the United States traveling among the Plains Indians. The works you see here are all prints made by Karl Bodmer after that trip, but we also have Prince Maximilian’s original journal and one of his own watercolors — fieldwork that he was taught to do with Humboldt’s inspiration. It’s really an incredible opportunity to be able to understand how these people developed an understanding of the languages and the cultures of American Indians. Now, they, like Humboldt, when they returned from the United States, made a large color album with all of these prints in it, and an overarching map of their trip with Max’s cartouche that represents sort of a summary of his trip. But what’s really more important is this. This album was given to Max by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Clark was the territorial governor in Missouri, in St. Louis, and he took a liking to Max, and so he made a copy of all of the route maps that he had drawn as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition as a gift to Max to help him on his journey up and down the river himself. So, just as Humboldt gave us his map in order to help understand the Louisiana Purchase, Clark gives Max his maps in order to help him understand the American Midwest.
Now, the man who made it possible for Maximilian and for another artist, George Catlin, to learn as much as they did about the Mandan Indians is Mato-tope. He’s the chief of the Mandan. This is George Catlin’s portrait of him from 1832, and Max and Bodmer’s portrait of him the following year, from 1833. He was the gatekeeper. He determined what you learned about his culture. He seemed to trust Max and Bodmer a great deal, because Bodmer taught him to paint in watercolor, and in fact, this is Mato-tope’s watercolor showing himself in a battle with a Cheyenne Indian chief, wounded but still prevailing — one of his most important battle victories. Mato-tope would then paint those scenes on the bison robes that were pictographic evidence of the valor of a particular warrior, and then, in a sign of real respect, he invited Max and Bodmer to spend the winter with the Mandan, where they were invited into the chief’s lodge — truly something that was an extraordinary gesture. As a result, between Catlin and Max’s trips with the Mandan, when they were nearly eliminated thanks to smallpox in 1837, the accounts that Catlin and Max had written up of the Mandan gave us, all of us, the most detailed accounting of their tribes and their life ways that we have on paper.
George Catlin forges a really interesting friendship with Alexander von Humboldt. He’s an amateur artist, not much of an ethnographer, so it’s a little funny that he ends up becoming very close to Humboldt. But in 1844, George Catlin took his Indian gallery of paintings to London, and he hired a troop of performers, British performers, who had been performing “Last of the Mohicans” on stage, and asked them to act out the Plains Indian dances for his English audience. But then, P.T. Barnum brought over a troop of Iowa Indians, whose portraits you see here, who were willing to perform for Catlin in order to give him a more authentic part of his Indian gallery. When Catlin left London for Paris, the Iowa Indians went with him, and as a result of that, in May of 1845, these people danced for King Louis Philippe of France at the Tuileries Palace outside of Paris, and that is what’s happening in this painting by Karl Girardet, the court painter to Louis Philippe. The king and his entourage are here on the right; the Iowa Indians are dancing here. It is possible to match up each of the individuals in this painting with the individuals you see on the walls here. At these performances, celebrities like Victor Hugo, George Sand, and Eugène Delacroix were in attendance, and so was Humboldt, and after one performance, Humboldt, Catlin, and the Iowa Indians toured the Louvre together. When Catlin wrote up his European adventures, he further pushed on Humboldt’s friendship by making a line drawing inside the frontispiece that shows Alexander von Humboldt greeting one of the Iowa Indians. He then embossed that on the cover, quite literally a Good Housekeeping seal of approval by Humboldt himself. Ten years later when Catlin was in Berlin, Humboldt arranged for Catlin to paint ten works of art for the king’s collection. Two of those compositions are here. They’re all copies of works that Catlin had already done, but Catlin ended up in the collections of Louis Philippe and King Friedrich Wilhem IV, in large part due to Humboldt’s influence.
So Humboldt, by the 1830s, is referring to himself as half an American. It’s kind of a nice joke. He’s a good friend of the Marquis de Lafayette, who considered himself a full American, and Humboldt will become one of the most active revolutionaries in Napoleonic Europe. His friends are the Marquis de Lafayette and Simón Bolívar, who gave Humboldt credit for inspiring him to go home and fight the revolutions in South America that would free those countries from Spanish rule. As a result, Humboldt becomes a magnet for every American traveler headed first to Paris and then to Berlin. They begin to bring back souvenirs. This is actually a chromolithograph that Millard Fillmore brought back from visiting Humboldt in1856, where the aging explorer, now in his eighties, is seated in his library, surrounded by his entire career: books and maps, travel documents, stuffed critters. It’s all there — very much his own world in miniature.
Another chromolithograph was a gift to Alexander Dallas Bache, the head of the US Coast Guard, and it does resemble the watercolor that was done of the inside of Peale’s museum, which was considered a model for what the Smithsonian would be. So what’s the connection between the Smithsonian and Alexander von Humboldt? Well, among those people who made a beeline to meet Humboldt was one British chemist named James Smithson. He and Humboldt had met in 1790, but the friendship really took hold in 1814, when Smithson spent close to a year in France during the last days of Napoleon, and it’s during that time that Smithson begins to think about what to do with his legacy. He admires Humboldt, the feeling seems to be mutual, and what will end up happening is that Smithson will change his will in order to dedicate his fortune to create an institution in Washington, DC, bearing his name, for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. It’s a Humboldtian ethos, and when that bequest comes to the United States, all of the people associated with the founding of the Smithsonian are men Humboldt either knew or corresponded with, or who admired him a great deal, and so, in fact, the Smithsonian, like Peale’s museum, becomes a way of understanding the unity of nature and the entirety of the world.
So, part of what made Humboldt tick was an interest in networks of knowledge and communication and people and ideas, and it was in Paris where Humboldt really started to bring those ideas together. At the time that Samuel F. B. Morse was in Paris painting the studies for the “Gallery of the Louvre,” Humboldt was there too, and Morse and the authors James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving all became close friends. In fact, Humboldt would distract Morse, and basically get up on scaffolding and say, “You look tired. Let’s go walk through the galleries,” and then he would say, “Tell me about the telegraph.” Because what Humboldt wanted more than anything else was instantaneous communication with people around the globe. He was tired of having monarchs who intercepted his mail. He was tired of having ships lost at sea. What he really wanted was a solid, solid network, and so what he does is, he hopes that this American artist-turned-inventor is going to be the answer to that prayer.
At the time that he’s there, Rembrandt Peale is also in residence, and he paints Humboldt’s portrait, and says to Humboldt how much he dislikes Napoleon and says, “I desire to return and retire to your country, where you really can breathe the air more freely.” The idea that freedom equates with the idea of the freedom of ideas, of freedom of speech, of freedom of expression, is something that Humboldt believed his entire life.
So, from Morse’s telegraph, we then move across the Atlantic Ocean, and what Morse will do is, he will present the telegraph at the French National Society in the 1830s. Here is one of the earliest telegraph registers and keys in the Smithsonian collection, along with a copy of the first message ever sent by telegraph, “What hath God wrought?” between Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail. The reason these are here is, they really speak to the fact that when Humboldt had the chance to introduce Morse’s invention to the French Scientific Society, he congratulated Morse by saying, “You are now a master in two worlds: the world of art and the world of science.” Morse and Humboldt also remained friends, and when Morse went into business with Cyrus Field to help create the transatlantic cable, we network together another aspect of this exhibition. Because Cyrus Field was the patron who went to South America with Frederic Church, and underwrote his trips there. What Cyrus Field will do is figure out how to take the telegraph wire and turn it into a cable strong enough to lie on the ocean floor between Newfoundland in Canada and Ireland in Europe. So what we have is really the arc of communication, from the telegraph to the transatlantic cable, from Morse to Cyrus Field, here in the red-lined coat, with his cable cabinet, which includes Morse. His globe here, a snippet of the cable — the idea that as sheets of paper change hands, it’s like information traveling from one person to another — and there is Cyrus Field’s globe, also part of the Smithsonian’s collection, really giving you that sense of how global communication was something that Humboldt was very excited about.
So where’s Smithson himself? He’s over here in miniature. It’s a lovely portrait of the founder of the Smithsonian right about the time that he and Humboldt met. This is a miniature from 1816.
What’s also important is, less than three weeks after Humboldt died in 1859, as Frederic Church is mourning the fact that he can’t send “Heart of the Andes” to Humboldt any longer, Humboldt’s manservant, who has inherited his entire estate — everything we saw in that chromolithograph of Humboldt in his library — now has to figure out what to do with it. And he has his son-in-law write a letter to Joseph Henry, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, to say, “Humboldt always wanted his things to come to America. Why don’t you buy his entire estate and bring it to the United States?” Well, there was serious consideration of this, but the cost was prohibitive, and we were about to descend into civil war, and so nothing ever happened, which might have actually been a blessing in disguise, for as much as it would have been wonderful to have embraced Humboldt as part of the Smithsonian literally, a fire in the castle in 1865 might very well have destroyed that legacy inadvertently, and that would be a loss to all humankind. So instead, what we have is an expression of interest in the United States, starting with Humboldt talking to Thomas Jefferson, working his way through Lafayette and international politics, to his putative son-in-law basically saying, he always did think of himself as an American.
So when we think of the Smithsonian, I think of it as being a little bit like the bricks and mortar version of Humboldt’s brain. Everything the Smithsonian does seems to champion an idea that Humboldt admired, and so we end the exhibition portion here with Frederic Church’s “Aurora Borealis” — literally an expression of the cosmos from the outer limits of the atmosphere down to the ocean floor, and also, in the auroras, the sense of the metaphor of electromagnetics flickering overhead, connecting Canada to Ireland, the same way that the transatlantic cable would. It is an expression of the unity of nature, of the need for that interconnectedness, and a need for us all to learn from each other in order to be better stewards of our own planet.
In the final gallery, it’s a dedication to the concept of one Smithsonian; the idea that all of the Smithsonian, from the arts, to the sciences, to the community museums, to all of the field research that we do around the globe, unites in one concerted effort to understand ourselves and our planet better. In that room, we feature nine ongoing research projects from all over the globe being sponsored by researchers, curators, and scientists who understand that they are a part of this Humboldtian legacy. This is an exhibition that looks to how we became enamored of nature as part of our cultural identity, but it is also an extension of how Humboldt’s curiosity, how his insane interest — his lifelong interest — in how all of the pieces fit together is exactly what the Smithsonian is all about.