"Humboldt in his Library", 1856, after Edouard Hildebrandt (Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)
Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most influential intellectuals of the 19th century. He has more species named after him than any other human being. Charles Darwin considered Humboldt’s Personal Narrative as one of his most valuable possessions and said this served as his inspiration and influence for his journey on the H.M.S. Beagle. In his prime, he was said to be the most famous man in Europe after Napoleon.
Humboldt lived for 90 years, published more than 36 books, traveled across three continents, and wrote well over 25,000 letters to an international network of colleagues and admirers. His passion and curiosity for all things living made him an incredibly prolific naturalist. Though today his name may have fallen from popular culture, his legacy lives on.
In 1804, after traveling four years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent exactly six weeks in the United States. In these 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 in which the young country’s cultural identity became grounded in its relationship with the environment.
Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents an exclusive exploration into Humboldt’s lasting influence on American art and culture, as well as his many connections to the Smithsonian’s collections.
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