Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt has his name immortalized on a bay in California, a mountain range in New Zealand, towns all over the world, an orchid, and even a squid. Who exactly this man of wanderlust was, however, remains less familiar. A new exhibition at the Americas Society on the Upper East Side is taking its own expedition into his legacy in the visual arts.
Curated by Georgia de Havenon and Alicia Lubowski-Jahn, Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas, which opened this week, overtakes three stately rooms of the Park Avenue–based organization with a refined gathering of paintings, artifacts, books, and other ephemera both directly and distantly related to Humboldt. Scientific instruments similar to those he would have used during his 1799–1804 travels through the Americas — with stops in present-day Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and Cuba — are positioned alongside such works as an oil painting of the aristocratic wanderer depicted in a Byronic pose in the jungles of the Amazon and his incredibly detailed chart that lays out the vertical geography of plants in the Equinoctial Regions.
While Humboldt was very interested in the people he encountered on his expeditions, taking a hard stance as an abolitionist, the exhibition is much more focused on his botanical work. His publications such as Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas) (1816) grasped at the extraordinary biodiversity of the Americas as part of a greater whole (hence the exhibition title, Unity of Nature). Nothing — location, weather, or species — was a standalone piece, and all were analyzed with the best science possible. Humboldt had an exuberance about biology that bordered on poetry: discussing his favorite plant, the palm tree, in his Physiognomy of Plants, he exulted it as “the loftiest and noblest of all vegetable forms, that to which the prize of beauty has been assigned by the concurrent voice of nations in all ages.”
His writings and sketches influenced artists like Frederic Edwin Church, Norton Busch, and Louis Rémy Mignot to paint the tropical beauty of these regions, and even to take expeditions themselves. The show veers a bit into a broad swath of general European artists who went to the same areas, such as Adela Breton, one of the few Victorian-era female artists to work out in the field. It’s also unfortunately light on how Humboldt’s influence has extended into contemporary nature art, although it does have an exceptional highlight in Mark Dion’s “Humboldt” (2013).
As Dion said earlier this week in a talk at the American Museum of Natural History, he relates his artistic work more to a naturalist in the field than to a scientist, and there’s definitely some of that approach in Humboldt’s tactic of looking closely at the visual elements of the natural world. For the curiosity cabinet–style “Humboldt” (2013), Dion collaborated with artists Dana Sherwood, Diego Benavides, Margarita Besosa, Olga Lucía García, Juan Pablo Gaviria, María Paula Moreno, and Eulalia de Valdenebro to send postcards with scientific drawings of local specimens back from Bogotá, Colombia, the illustrations displayed with their backs, showing postal proof of their journeys.
Humboldt’s influence on natural art is worthy of a larger show, and Unity of Nature does feel somewhat rushed in attempting to tell how he impacted artists beyond 19th-century Europe, when his renown was at its peak. (An accompanying catalogue goes more in-depth into his work.) Still, considering Humboldt rarely gets much attention in New York (despite the Central Park statue), the exhibition is a thoughtful evocation of an overlooked visual history of biodiversity, much of which has now vanished in a radically industrialized world.
Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas continues at the Americas Society (680 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through July 26.