- Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture by Eleanor Jones
Alexander von Humboldt, Philosophy, Natural world, Nature, Visual arts
In the Alexander von Humboldt and the United States catalogue and exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eleanor Harvey takes a deep dive into nineteenth-century American thought and culture to tease out traces of Humboldt, “arguably the most important natural philosopher of the nineteenth century” (25). Although hardly a household name today, Humboldt was one of the best known and admired public figures [End Page 480] until his death in 1859. The Prussian-born naturalist traveled the globe and wrote more than 36 books and 25,000 letters to a global network of correspondents. His theory of the interconnectedness of humans and nature, radical at the time, formed the basis of his five-volume magnum opus, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (1848–59). An international bestseller, Cosmos had a profound impact on past and current understandings of the natural world, inspiring visual artists, writers, and scientists from Charles Darwin to Rachel Carson. Although Humboldt spent only six weeks in the United States in 1804, discussing the Louisiana Purchase with Thomas Jefferson and inspiring Charles Willson Peale to come out of artistic retirement to paint his portrait, he proclaimed himself “half an American” and had a lasting impact on the nation’s cultural identity through his publications and correspondence.
Each of the eight chapters in Alexander von Humboldt and the United States examines an area of Humboldt’s cultural impact—from his influence on early American naturalist–explorers to his lifelong advocacy of abolition and his deep interest in Native American ethnography. Humboldt’s imprint on American thought and culture has received a resurgence of scholarly attention in recent decades, most notably by literature scholar Laura Dassow Walls and historian Andrea Wulf, whose bestseller, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, thrust the polymath into popular culture.1 Harvey’s exhibition and catalogue, however, cement Humboldt’s significance to the visual arts, as she investigates his impact on Peale, Samuel F. B. Morse, Frederic Edwin Church, Carleton Watkins, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer, and their visions of the natural world and its inhabitants. Densely researched and dizzying in its chronological and cultural expanse, the catalogue convincingly lays out Humboldt’s significant mark on U.S. cultural identity and artistic production.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Smithsonian’s extended closures in 2020 and 2021, the Alexander von Humboldt and the United States catalogue has become, in many ways, a stand-in for the shuttered exhibition. Originally slated to open in March of 2020, the exhibition has only been open to the public for nine weeks (three weeks longer than Humboldt’s short stay in the United States). A number of online resources, [End Page 481] however, including lectures, tours, animated videos, and a complete checklist and label copy, provide multiple layers of access during the museum’s closure. Still, the catalogue and these virtual platforms cannot replicate the experience of viewing in person the masterworks Harvey has assembled, including the skeleton of a mastodon excavated by Peale in the early nineteenth century and borrowed from the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.
Harvey described her clearest revelation in “dusting for [Humboldt’s] fingerprints” across U.S. culture as finding his “far reaching influence on the development of what has been called America’s ‘wilderness aesthetic,’” defined as “finding positive value in uncultivated territory” (35). Because of Humboldt, the United States adopted nature and “the concept of wilderness specifically—as an emblem of the scale and scope of our cultural ambitions,” giving rise to the Hudson River School of landscape painting (29). Unfortunately, there is little critical interrogation of the darker side of this “wilderness aesthetic” and its affiliated colonialist enterprise.2 For Americans to embrace uninhabited wilderness as...