Towering genius disdains the beaten path

Today, art and science run in very separate tracks. That wasn’t always true.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 

Because of lockdown, museums and galleries are closed. That means I won’t seeing Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Luckily, I can tour the show virtually or buy the book.

Not only was Alexander von Humboldt the towering genius of early 19th century science, he had a profound influence on American art and culture. There’s a Humboldt Street in Portland, a Humboldt Parkway in my home town of Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  He was a famous explorer, but he was also the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.

Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.

Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.

Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.

Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that took 21 years and resulted in his opus magnum, Cosmos. It changed the way scientists see the world.

Humboldt mentored many young scientists. He was equally generous with visual artists. He expected them to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.

Alexander von Humboldt and AimĂ© Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo, 1810, Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Church was not the only artist to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps, but he was by far the cleverest. In 1853 and 1859, he traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.

The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York and stand in front of it.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But in 1859, Americans weren’t flocking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it didn’t yet exist. Our nation didn’t even have a decent rail system. Church took his painting on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it.

At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist. Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show it to his mentor, but Humboldt, alas, died before that was possible.