Americas Society will present Unity of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt and the Americas, the first exhibition in New York to focus on the intrepid Prussian explorer, scientist, diplomat, and author. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was reputedly the second most well-known person in France in the early nineteenth century, his popularity eclipsed only by Napoleon’s. The eminent Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said he was "probably the world's most famous and influential intellectual [of the early nineteenth century]," yet he is virtually unknown in the United States today.
From 1799 to 1804, Humboldt traversed about 6,000 miles, journeying through the Spanish American colonies (modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Cuba) to observe nature in the "torrid zone." Over the three decades after his return, Humboldt published some thirty volumes relating to his journey, the most renowned of which is the beautifully illustrated Vues des Cordillères, et Monumens des Peuples Indigènes de l'Amérique (1810). Unity of Nature will serve as a re-introduction of Humboldt to the American public. Included in the exhibition will be books, sculpture, scientific instruments, and paintings, especially landscapes by the artists who followed in his footsteps to South and Central America. Oftentimes the first European to venture into the interior areas of South America, Humboldt and his travel publications inspired many American artists, including Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) and Louis Rémy Mignot (1831–1870) who were among the first to retrace his voyage. Their goals were not only to follow Humboldt's journey, but also to adhere to his scientific-aesthetic principles, especially in their portrayals of nature, a major theme of the exhibition. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, Humboldt’s writings helped fuel a belief in manifest destiny influencing painters such as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Thomas Moran (1837–1926) as well as the photographer Carleton Watkins (1829–1916).
Sections of the exhibition are devoted to Humboldt's impact on Latin American independence and U.S. expansionism encompassing material relating to the explorer's 1804 visit to the United States and meeting with Thomas Jefferson, his final years, and death in 1859, a year in which Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and Frederic Church exhibited his iconic painting "Heart of the Andes." New York-based artist Mark Dion, who often addresses ecological issues in his work, will offer a contemporary response to Humboldt’s classification of nature by exploring the tradition of scientific field illustration. On exhibit will be a drawing cabinet he created during an artists’ residency in Colombia, where he collected specimens daily from the local rain forest and then worked with a team of colleagues to record his findings through a series of watercolors and drawings.