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An explorer's adventures: Alexander von Humboldt at the Americas Society

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Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas

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A good exhibition is one which tells a story. If it's an adventure story, even better. The more engaging the story, and the visual complements, the better the exhibition.

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The gallery at the Americas Society is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas.” It tells the exciting story of Humboldt, the then-famous 19th-century scientist adventurer, explorer of unknown lands - a man now largely unknown especially in the United States.

You’ve likely never heard the name of this intrepid observer before, but by the time you wander through the Americas Society’s small three-room gallery, you’ll know just how important he is.

Humboldt traveled throughout the Americas cataloguing plant life and the environment in rainforests, jungles, mountaintops and beyond. His research made it possible not only for other scientists to better understand the largely unexplored Americas, but for the common man to “see” the world at a time when photography was not yet widespread. Artists followed Humboldt on his adventures, and Humboldt in turn inspired artists to travel to the places he wandered, documenting the exotic locales.

“Unity of Nature” contains 52 items, a mix of paintings, research equipment, books, drawings, letters, statues and other interesting objects. Divided into three rooms, the exhibition tells us first about the research that Humboldt conducted, displaying some of the instruments he may have used and maps he drew; in the largest room, the exhibition features the countries and sites visited by our explorer, with landscape paintings by famous artists like Albert Bierstadt; and lastly we learn a little more about the man himself through his collections and his writings.

Although the Park Avenue building may look closed (a gate behind the front doors is immovable), you’ll want to venture into the Americas Society for this exhibition. Guest-curated by Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, “Unity of Nature” is well-prepared and tells a truly remarkable story, both visually and in print. Gallery texts and labels provide a wealth of information for the curious visitor, and the items on view are worthy of more than just a second glance. The accompanying catalogue with scholarly and intriguing articles about the man and his work is a great way to learn more as well, if so inclined.

Alexander von Humboldt was known at one point as the “second Columbus” and “said to have been the best-known man in Europe after Napoleon Bonaparte” yet his name is largely forgotten in North America today (Levenson 9). Through the Americas Society’s exhibition, we learn that Humboldt was a fantastic explorer who climbed volcanoes, stumbled upon Aztec ruins, once held the world record for climbing what was believed to be the highest mountain in the world, and recorded information on botany, oceanography, geology, and ecology in over 600 published works.

Humboldt’s relationship with artists was especially significant. History professor Pablo Diener notes that most publications in the early 19th-century included solely scientific descriptions and drawings; Humboldt revolutionized the field by employing artists who were called “to intervene by representing the physiognomy of plants; in other words, he incites them to construct a repertory of the beauties of the planet, founded on scientific knowledge.” Humboldt’s use of artist-travelers helped to inspire other artists to visit far-away lands and paint them as they were.

Humboldt believed in an unequivocal link between science and art, combining scientific discourse with aesthetic thought – and artists followed suit (62). In one of his publications, Humboldt argues,

"Are we not justified in hoping that landscape painting will flourish with a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy when artists of merit shall more frequently pass the narrow limits of the Mediterranean, and when they are enabled, far in the interior of continents, in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world, to seize with the genuine freshness of a pure and youthful spirit, on the true image of the varied forms of nature?”

Albert Berg’s “Andes of Quindio,” Norton Bush’s “A Memory of the Tropics,” Johann Moritz Rugendas’s “Landschaft im Brasilianischen Urwald,” and Frederic Edwin Church’s “The Falls of the Tequendama near Bogota, New Granada” are all beautifully-crafted artworks of the lush tropics, painted as a result of Humboldt’s pioneering travels – each of which is on view in the galleries today.

A few artists used their talents to capture the man himself – Eduard Ender’s 1850 oil painting of a young Humboldt and fellow scientist Aime Bonpland (also on view in the gallery) is an especially telling image of the two adventurers with their scientific instruments and drawings, the jungle beckoning behind them. Art history professor Katherine Manthorne writes, “Ender’s portrait of Humboldt captured him as the dashing explorer and master of all he surveyed: the persona that so fired the imaginations of his artist-disciples in the United States that they would follow his footsteps through tropical America and establish it as a legitimate subject for fine art” (43).

Humboldt was an inspiration to many, a man who planned and funded each of his adventures, and encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, discovering more and more of the un-explored Americas, from Mexico to Ecuador, the Canary Islands to Venezuela. As curator Georgia de Havenon notes, “Because of his tireless energy, he was known throughout the world and set a new standard for scientific and descriptive thought. […] He was part of the very fabric of the nineteenth century, helping to form a revised picture of the Americas through his exotic and ordered rhetoric. […] Humboldt’s visual and textual descriptions of the Torrid Zone continue to impress artists, writers, and scientists and have led to new ways of expression, further cementing his place in history” (26).

Come to the Americas Society at 680 Park Avenue by July 26 to discover a man and his life’s work. Entrance to the exhibition is free.

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