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The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s critically acclaimed exhibition “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture” was just days away from opening to the public when the museum closed March 14 due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The exhibition and the museum have been awaiting visitors ever since. Now that the Smithsonian has announced the reopening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the exhibition will be on view from Friday, Sept. 18, through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was a renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer and one of the most influential figures of the 19th century. 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. Humboldt’s concerns about issues such as climate change resonate to this day.
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. In a tremendous show of support, all lenders agreed to the extension.
“I am so pleased this highly anticipated exhibition is finally open to the public, allowing visitors to learn more about this Renaissance man who shaped our young nation’s identity,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We are deeply grateful to the collectors, museums and foundations for their continued generosity in sharing these important works with the American public, especially during these unprecedented times in a global pandemic.”
“Humboldt remains relevant today for his lifelong support for democracy in the United States, his belief in the equality of all races and his respect for women,” said Eleanor Jones Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum who organized the exhibition. “Equally important is the legacy of his quest for knowledge about nature, which opened the door to the study of climate change, and more broadly, on humankind’s impact on our planet.”
The exhibition places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence with artworks that reveal how the American wilderness became emblematic of the country’s distinctive character. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe—his concern for deforestation and climate change, his taxonomic curiosity centered on New World species of flora and fauna and his belief that the arts were as important as the sciences for conveying the resultant sense of wonder in the interlocking aspects of the planet—make this a project evocative of how art illuminates some of the issues central to stewardship of the planet today. Artworks by Albert Bierstadt, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Frederic Church, Eastman Johnson, Samuel F.B. Morse, Charles Willson Peale, John Rogers, William James Stillman and John Quincy Adams Ward, among others, will be on display. Church, an esteemed painter of the Hudson River school, features prominently in the exhibition. He idolized Humboldt, going as far as trekking in the naturalist’s footsteps in South America.
“Harvey’s exhibition, which can be explored online and through a rich and beautifully produced catalog, connects dots in masterful ways, linking art, science and politics,” said Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post’s art and architecture critic. “It explains some of the curious mysteries of early America and its art....It puts Humboldt at the center of complex webs of scientific and artistic enterprise, including ethnographic research into Native American societies, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable and the founding of the Smithsonian.”
A focal point in the exhibition is the original “Peale Mastodon” skeleton, on loan from the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. This landmark object has specific ties to Humboldt, Peale and an emerging American national identity in the early 19th century. Its inclusion in the exhibition represents a homecoming for the important fossil that has been in Europe since 1847, and emphasizes that natural history and natural monuments bond Humboldt with the United States. The skeleton, excavated in 1801 in upstate New York, was the most complete to be unearthed at that time. Its discovery became a symbol of civic pride. In 1804, Humboldt was honored with a dinner beneath the mastodon while it was exhibited in the Peale Museum in Philadelphia. Two paintings featuring the fossil—“Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806–08) and “The Artist in His Museum” (1822) both by Peale—are on display nearby in the galleries.
The exhibition catalog, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture, is written by Harvey with a preface by Hans Sues, chair of paleobiology and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Princeton University Press, it is available for purchase online ($75).
The museum organized a six-part online lecture series, “The World of Alexander von Humboldt,” with presentations by historians of art and science and contemporary artists that address how Humboldt’s observations and ideas from 200 years ago resonate with even greater relevance today in the face of climate change. Speakers include Harvey (Sept. 16); Andrea Wulf, best-selling author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Sept. 23); Randall Griffin, professor of art history at Southern Methodist University (Oct. 7); Dario Robleto, artist-in-residence at the University of Hoston’s Cullen College of Engineering (Oct. 14); Tom Lovejoy, professor of environmental science at George Mason University (Oct. 21); and George Steinmann, artist, musician and researcher (Oct. 28). All talks take place at 1 p.m. ET and are free, but registration is required through Eventbrite.
This lecture series is made possible by support from the Provost of the Smithsonian for Earth Optimism programming.
Planning a Visit to the Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has reopened with new health and safety measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a reduced weekly schedule. The museum is open five days a week, Wednesday through Sunday, from 11:30 a.m.to 7 p.m. Visitors must reserve timed-entry passes in advance, and masks are required while at the museum. Passes can be reserved online at or by phone at 1-800-514-3849, ext. 1. An individual will be able to reserve up to six passes for personal use. Each visitor must have a pass, regardless of age. Visitors may choose to print timed-entry passes at home or show a digital timed-entry pass on their mobile device. The museum’s store and its café remain closed at this time, and the museum’s entrance at Eighth and F streets N.W. is closed. All visitors must enter at Eighth and G streets N.W. Additional information is available on the museum’s website at AmericanArt.si.edu/visit
“Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Joanne and Richard Brodie, Billings and John Cay, Fern and Hersh Cohen, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Marie M. Halff, Liliane A. and Christian W.E. Haub, Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz Endowment, Kandeo Asset Management, Maureen and Gene Kim, LATAM Trade Capital, Robert Lehman Foundation, Henry Luce Foundation, The Lunder Foundation—Peter and Paula Lunder Family, Provost of the Smithsonian, Lucy S. Rhame, Holly and Nick Ruffin, Jacquelyn and William Sheehan, Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards, the Terra Foundation for American Art and Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth.
This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The accompanying catalog is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the most significant and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, and is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.
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