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

Princeton Univ. Apr. 2020. 448p. ISBN 9780691200804. $75. FINE ARTS
Even during his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was considered the apotheosis of the Enlightenment explorer-scientist, journeying between hemispheres, making comprehensive empirical observations of everything he experienced. His 1799–1804 expedition through the wilds of New Spain concluded with six unplanned weeks in America, during which he formed a bond with his fellow naturalist and mutual admirer President Jefferson. This fleeting rendezvous’ outsized impact on American life—art, science, literature, territorial expansion--propels Smithsonian curator Harvey’s dense, engrossing project, culminating in a landmark exhibition and this hefty volume. The multifold influence of this “most consequential visit by a European traveler” plays out in eight scholarly essays beautifully illustrated with paintings, artifacts, and maps. The Jefferson-Humboldt bromance, while tempered by the latter’s antislavery views, was just the tip of the iceberg. Most evident is Humboldt’s dazzling visual record of exploration and its downstream tendrils. His excellent mapping advanced the importance of cartographic data, immediately influencing the journey of Lewis & Clark and in turn John C. Fremont. His unifying Naturgemalde (picture of nature) worldview inspired such American pastoralists as Frederic Church, Emerson, and Whitman, generating an aesthetic legacy that persists today. Moreover, his against-the-grain espousal of the view that pre-Columbian civilizations were advanced precipitates Harvey’s interesting deep dive into Humboldt’s friendship with the ethnographer-painter George Catlin.
VERDICT An archetype of the “public intellectual” bearing enormous, transformative importance, thoroughly considered in word and image.
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