Humboldt in the Americas
Between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt, accompanied by French botanist Aimé Bonpland, traversed 6,000 miles through the regions we now call Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru. The goal of this trip was to observe and record the people, flora and fauna in the Spanish American Colonies. Few Europeans had explored these areas, and those who had, did not record their voyages in a scientific manner.
Humboldt published some thirty books following his return over the Atlantic, describing his interactions in botanical, sociological, and zoological terms (that is to say, his interactions with plants, people, and animals). Where Humboldt diverges from other scientists
was his desire not only to publish his research, but to do so in ways more readily accessible to the common man. He published different versions of his writings, targeted towards a less scientific audience in an effort to bring his insights to as many people as possible.
Under this page of the Alexander von Humboldt in Philadelphia exhibit, you find images and information regarding his journey through the Americas. These have been selected in order to show you not only what sorts of plants, people, and animals Humboldt interacted with, but also how he viewed the world around him. Humboldt’s descriptions inspired artists, scientists, and hopefully now yourself.
This colorized engraving, based on a Humboldt sketch, highlights the geographic features of Turbaco in modern-day Colombia. In the image, gesturing towards the titular “Air-Volcanos,” stand two figures, one Indigenous and one European. This engraving combines three of Humboldt’s fascinations into a singular landscape that captures the romanticized images of the so-called “New World.”
Some of Humboldt’s preferences for the picturesque visuals of the Spanish American Colonies can be seen in his publication, Views of Nature: or Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creation; with Scientific Illustrations. Occasionally referred to as the “Atlas pittoresque” (Picturesque Atlas), or the Pittoreske Ansichten der Kordilleren und Monumente der amerikanischen Völker (Picturesque Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of Indigenous Peoples), Humboldt’s book captures the visual aspects of the landscape as well as recording scientifically significant information.
Another picturesque image, Cascade is an illustration of the idyllic geographic landscape of the Americas. The image includes lush vegetation and awe-inspiring waterfalls, the scene dotted by birds. Two explorers are included in the image, perhaps reminding its Europeans viewers of the supposedly unexplored status of these regions at the time.
Read Views of Nature.
In addition to Views of Nature, Humboldt published his research and professed the aesthetic beauty of the landscape in Kosmos: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe). Much like in Views of Nature, Humboldt’s appreciation for the physical beauty as well as the scientifically relevant, comes forth in his descriptions and his sketches.
Not all of Humboldt’s fascinations laid with the aesthetic. Amongst his appreciative and loving renderings of the American landscape, he provided scientific descriptions and illustrations of the wildlife of the region. Humboldt provided images of these “specimens” divided from the images of landscapes, thus separating them from the “picturesque.”