The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s critically acclaimed exhibition “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture” was just days away from opening to the public when the museum closed March 14 due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The exhibition and the museum have been awaiting visitors ever since. Now that the Smithsonian has announced the reopening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition returned to view on Friday, Sept. 18, and will be on display through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer and one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. In 1804, after traveling five years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent 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 artists Charles Willson Peale–shaped American perceptions of nature and the way American cultural identity is grounded in the natural world. Humboldt’s concerns about issues such as climate change resonate to this day.
The exhibition centers on the fine arts as a lens through which to understand how deeply intertwined Humboldt’s ideas were with America’s emerging identity. It 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. In a tremendous show of support, all lenders agreed to the extension.
“I am so pleased this highly anticipated exhibition is finally open to the public, allowing visitors to learn more about this Renaissance man who shaped our young nation’s identity,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We are deeply grateful to the collectors, museums and foundations for their continued generosity in sharing these important works with the American public, especially during these unprecedented times in a global pandemic.”
“Humboldt remains relevant today for his lifelong support for democracy in the United States, his belief in the equality of all races and his respect for women,” said Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who organized the exhibition. “Equally important is the legacy of his quest for knowledge about nature, which opened the door to the study of climate change, and more broadly, on humankind’s impact on our planet.”
The exhibition places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence with artworks that reveal how the American wilderness became emblematic of the country’s distinctive character. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe–his concern for deforestation and 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 the planet–make this a project evocative of how art illuminates some of the issues central to stewardship of the planet today.
Artworks by Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Frederic Church, Eastman Johnson, Samuel F. B. Morse, Peale, John Rogers, William James Stillman and John Quincy Adams Ward, among others, will be on display. Church, an esteemed painter of the Hudson River school, features prominently in the exhibition. He idolized Humboldt, going as far as trekking in the naturalist’s footsteps in South America.
“Harvey’s exhibition, which can be explored online and through a rich and beautifully produced catalog, connects dots in masterful ways, linking art, science and politics,” said Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic. “It explains some of the curious mysteries of early America and its art….It puts Humboldt at the center of complex webs of scientific and artistic enterprise, including ethnographic research into Native American societies, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable and the founding of the Smithsonian.”
A focal point in the exhibition is the original “Peale Mastodon” skeleton, on loan from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. This landmark object has specific ties to Humboldt, Peale and an emerging American national identity in the early 19th century. Its inclusion in the exhibition represents a homecoming for the important fossil that has been in Europe since 1847, and emphasizes that natural history and natural monuments bond Humboldt with the United States. The skeleton, excavated in 1801 in upstate New York, was the most complete to be unearthed at that time. Its discovery became a symbol of civic pride.
In 1804, Humboldt was honored with a dinner beneath the mastodon while it was exhibited in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Two paintings featuring the fossil–“Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806-08) and “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) both by Peale–are on display nearby the galleries.