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2020-21, Museum Exhibition and Book, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Print of Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
Smithsonian American Art Museum
April 2020 (catalog publication)
2020 — July 11, 2021 (exhibition on view)

The George Glazer Gallery loaned a 19th century chromolithograph portrait of the renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) in his studio to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for this major exhibition on Humboldt and his immense influence on his 19th-century contemporaries. The portrait also appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition. This 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 centers on the fine arts as a lens through which to understand how deeply intertwined Humboldt’s ideas were with America’s emerging identity. The exhibition 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 this video, exhibition curator Eleanor Harvey discusses the print loaned by George Glazer Gallery in the context of the exhibition. You can also find a detailed description and more images of the print on our website.

Description of exhibition continues below.


The Smithsonian explains the premise of the exhibition and book:

Renowned Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century. He lived for 90 years, 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 four years in South America and Mexico, Humboldt spent exactly 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 our relationship with the environment.

Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture places American art squarely in the center of a conversation about Humboldt’s lasting influence on the way we think about our relationship to the natural world. Humboldt’s quest to understand the universe—his concern for 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 our planet—make this a project evocative of how art illuminates some of the issues central to our relationship with nature and our stewardship of this planet.

The particular example of the print loaned by George Glazer Gallery to the exhibit is uniquely inscribed in the lower right corner in faded brown ink as a presentation to “Prof. A.D. Bache from T.R.” Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-67). Bache came from a prominent Philadelphia family (Benjamin Franklin was his great-grandfather) and was a major figure in the modernization of American science and the reform of the American educational system. In the 1830s, he undertook a European study tour of the curriculum of over 250 institutions of higher learning. He was profoundly influenced in his thinking by his conversations with European scientists and educators, including Alexander von Humboldt. Bache spent the rest of his life successfully promoting higher educational standards and increased support of original scientific research. He held leadership roles with the major institutions of the day, including the Franklin Institute, U.S. Coast Survey, American Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution and National Academy of Sciences, and served as President of Girard College.

In the book Alexander Von Humboldt and The United States — Art, Nature, And Culture (Princeton University Press: 2020) that accompanies the Smithsonian exhibition of the same name, exhibition curator and author Eleanor Jones Harvey discusses the connection to Bache of this particular example of the print, given the aforementioned unique manuscript inscription to Bache:

Humboldt’s imprimatur on American discoveries remained valuable for American scientists’ careers. When the U.S. government considered cutting Alexander Dallas Bache’s funding for the U.S. Coastal Survey, he appealed to Humboldt, who wrote a letter in 1851 arguing for the importance of his work. In 1856 the aging Humboldt sent Bache a chromolithograph showing the explorer in his study (CAT. 107), surrounded by his travel diaries and manuscripts, in a room decorated with some of the souvenirs of his travels. On the wall hangs a large map of the world, conveying the global reach of his ideas and aspirations.

Note: The exhibition was originally scheduled to open in March 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic, with exhibitions variously in 2020, and ending in July 2021.


“Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. (22 June 2021).

“‘Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture’ Curator’s Video Tour.” YouTube: Smithsonian American Art Museum. (22 June 2021).

Harvey, Eleanor Jones. Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2020.  Cat 107, pp. 381-84