Amid the monuments of stone and marble, our nation’s treasures are curated in a collection of museums at the Smithsonian. There the most fascinating stories are told, but they are narrated with objects instead of words, read with experience, not just our eyes. And today is such a story – the story of Alexander von Humboldt’s visit to the United States in 1804. He was here just six weeks, but in that short time he directly influenced artists, philosophers, scientists, and politicians in tangible ways for the next 50 years. Indeed, it can be argued that we still feel the impact waves of that short visit to this day.
His visit had two immediate purposes, as he writes a letter of introduction to President Thomas Jefferson. He greatly admired Jefferson for his role in American democracy, as well as his scientific interests. Humboldt wishes to talk with Jefferson about a shared interest between them – mammoth skeletons. Such a skeleton had been recently exhumed in New York under the direction of Charles Peale and was displayed in his museum. Peale took delight in showing the fossilized skeleton to Humboldt and the mammoth quickly became a symbol of national pride.
The other reason Humboldt specifically wishes to see Jefferson is because he wants to gift a map of the territories surrounding the US to the President so that he can more strongly negotiate the borders of the Louisiana Purchase with the King of Spain. This act of friendship and generosity endeared Humboldt to the new nation and secured the borders that would eventually become states as the population extended west. In return, Humboldt asked that the US would send him data and measurements as the new territories were explored, thus ensuring Humboldt’s contact with US explorers and scientists for decades to come. At Humboldt’s suggestion every expedition west would include an artist or photographer and scientist. They also brought Humboldt’s books for reference.
And speaking of artists, Humboldt strongly believed that every scientist should look at nature with the eyes of an artist, and that artists should imbue their work with as much scientific detail as possible. His philosophy directly influenced American landscape artists, especially those of the Hudson River School. In particular one artist, Frederick Church, sought to embody Humboldt’s vision in all his work. The exhibition had a wonderful collection of his works on display. In addition to painting America’s natural beauty, Church followed in the footsteps of Humboldt’s expedition to South America. There he used Humboldt’s book to inform where he would go, visiting the same scenes and translating Humboldt’s maps into detailed landscape paintings that illustrated the scientific detail so desired by Humboldt. In fact, these paintings are used by scientists today to understand the changes in the snow pack and vegetation on these mountains caused by climate changes over the past two centuries.
Throughout Humboldt’s travels, he relied on native people to guide him, believing their knowledge was more valuable than that of colonial powers. He was deeply convicted of the equality of all peoples and was an ardent abolitionist. While in the US, the situation of slavery greatly distressed him in a nation dedicated to freedom. He formed close friendships with abolitionists, notably Frederick Douglas and John Fremont. Fremont was an explorer who named many natural points of interest after Humboldt. Humboldt in turn valued Fremont’s stance on slavery and was one of his greatest supporters when Fremont ran for president in 1856. He was devastated when Fremont lost and accurately predicted that the issue of slavery would tear apart the nation.
Humboldt was also deeply interested in the Indigenous Peoples of North America. He had missed Lewis and Clark leaving to explore the west by a matter of weeks and seriously considered trying to find them so he could explore the continent with them and meet the tribes of Native Americans living here. Though that didn’t happen, he did send two of his students back to the US to live and record their experiences among the tribes of the West. Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodner spend several months living with the Mandan people, forming close friendships with the Chief. They even taught him to watercolor at his insistence! They were guided in these expeditions by the maps that William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) provided them. Their time with the Mandan, painting the scenes of tribal life and recording their oral traditions became even more valuable when, a few years later, disease would completely wipe out this tribe.
In addition to his interests in ethnography, Humboldt was intensely curious and encouraging of scientists and inventors of his day. He formed close friendships with many, including one Samuel Morse, who at the time was a burgeoning painter. When both men lived in Paris, Humboldt was fond of distracting Morse from his painting in the Louvre and would get him talking about his new idea of a telegraph. Humboldt was deeply dedicated to sharing information and the idea of instantaneous communication thrilled him. When Morse debuted his telegraph, Humboldt endorsed it and was instrumental in getting the technology accepted. As Morse extended his ideas to the transatlantic cable, Humboldt’s vocal and sustained support ensured its success, even after a few setbacks. (As a side note, Morse partnered with Cyrus Field to make the transatlantic cable a reality. Cyrus Field was also the patron of artist Frederick Church, and accompanied him on his treks to South America)
The exhibit ends by illustrating a direct role Humboldt had in American culture that continues to this day. Among his friends was a brilliant chemist named James Smithson, who was looking for a way to use his fortune. Humboldt influenced Smithson heavily and at Humboldt’s encouragement, Smithson named a bequest to the US government for the establishment of an institution dedicated to the collection of knowledge in Washington DC. This became the Smithsonian Institution in which we were standing. In fact, upon Humboldt’s death, his heir asked the United States government to purchase Humboldt’s estate for the Smithsonian. That didn’t happen because of financial concerns on the eve of the Civil War, but the Smithsonian itself is an homage to Humboldt’s mind and influence. His efforts to collect knowledge from anthropology, art, history, culture, and science, and connect them in meaningful ways is exactly what the Smithsonian does. I can think of no better place to pay tribute to such an amazing man.
Blessings to you,