Explore One Man's Profound Impact On American Art, Culture and Nature Preservation With This Smithsonian Lecture Series

  • September 13, 2020 18:12

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Frederic Edwin Church, The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852, oil on canvas, The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Gift of Thomas Fortune Ryan

The Smithsonian American Art Museum will present a six-part online lecture series that examines the profound impact of Alexander von Humboldt, a renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer and one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. Talks by historians of art and science and contemporary artists will address how Humboldt’s observations and ideas from 200 years ago resonate with even greater relevance today in our current climate crisis.  

"Humboldt encouraged American landscape painters to embrace our natural wonders as emblems of our cultural identity," said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "As a country, we have much to thank Humboldt for, as reflected in the countless namesake places and species across our land. Most importantly, Humboldt’s influence on America’s love of and protection of nature is revealed in other prominent Americans’ legacies, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Rachel Carson.”

Registration is required. 


Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum 
September 16, Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture 

Andrea Wulf, author 
September 23, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World 

Randall Griffin, professor of art history, Southern Methodist University 
October 7, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Aerial River Series, Gaia, and the “Web of Life” 

Dario Robleto, artist-in-residence, University of Houston, Cullen College of Engineering 
October 14, The Curious Confront Eternity 

Tom Lovejoy, professor of environmental science, George Mason University 
October 21, Alexander von Humboldt: Polymath of His Time 

George Steinmann, artist, musician, and researcher 
October 28, Looking from Within: Art in the Horizon of the UN Agenda 2030 

Charles Willson Peale, Exhumation of the Mastodon, ca. 1806–08, oil on canvas, 49 x 61 1/2 in., Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore City Life Museum Collection, Gift of Bertha White in memory of her husband, Harry White, BCLM-MA.5911.

Planned for 2020, and on hold due to the pandemic, “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture” is the first exhibition to examine Humboldt’s impact on five spheres of American cultural development: the visual arts, sciences, literature, politics and exploration, between 1804 and 1903. It will open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s main building when the museum is able to reopen to the public. The museum is the sole venue for the exhibition which is organized by Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the museum.

Humboldt (1769–1859) lived to his 90th year, published more than 36 books, traveled across four continents and wrote well over 25,000 letters to an international network of colleagues and admirers. 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 artist Charles Willson Peale—shaped American perceptions of nature and the way American cultural identity became grounded in the natural world.

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.

An exhibition catalogue, co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Princeton University Press, is available for purchase ($75) online.

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