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Being Humboldt: The Man, the Myth, the Legend Comes to the SAAM

When the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery at long last reopened their doors, guests were treated to a fascinating exhibit!

The iconic luminist painting “Valley of Yosemite” by Albert Bierstadt, 1868, is on display in the Humboldt exhibit.
(All photos: Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – When the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery at long last reopened their doors on September 18, visitors didn’t make the usual beeline to the Obama portraits. Instead, they gravitated to the third floor where they were greeted by humongous Frederic Edwin Church landscape canvases and a massive mastodon skeleton.

The exhibit “Alexander Von Humboldt in America: Art, Nature, and Culture” might readily have made for a 2020 blockbuster art show had the pandemic not delayed its opening and shortened the exhibition. The afternoon Zebra wanted to revisit the presidential portraits exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, President Obama was being interviewed there by CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes. It was fortuitous that we were redirected to the SAAM.

Frederic Edwin Church’s “Aurora Borealis”, 1865,is a masterpiece in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Alexander Von Humboldt was born in 1769 in what is now Germany to a wealthy Prussian family. His scholarly and exploratory exploits made invaluable contributions to the popularization of science, establishing the foundations of biogeographical tenets, a precursor to climate science. His excursion to the Americas made him a rock star and the darling of the rising American Democratic republic. During his six-week whirlwind tour of America in 1804, Humboldt enchanted the political, scientific, artistic, and cultural elite. Thomas Jefferson and the preternaturally social James and Dolly Madison reveled in his sparkling wit, beguiling looks, and tireless tales of epic adventures.

The magnificence of the artwork integrated with the scientific aspects on exhibit spotlight the wonders of the natural world and how science intersects with art and culture. As Senior Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey notes, Humboldt believed that “artists need to have enough scientific background to know what they are painting, and scientists should maintain a sense of aesthetic wonder to appreciate as they are collecting.”

Depending upon how you enter the exhibit you are either greeted with breathtaking scenes of Yosemite National Park via the en-plain-air painting master Albert Bierstadt and the western photographic pioneer Carlton Watkins. Or by Frederic Edwin Church’s resplendent “Aurora Borealis“ preceding the curtained view to the magnificent mastodon excavated in Newburgh, New York, by the artist Charles Wilson Peale, an acquaintance of Humboldt.

This 15,000-year-old Mastodon is the centerpiece of the Humboldt exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This is the first time that the 11-foot tall, 20-foot long prehistoric pachyderm has been back in the US since it left for a tour of Europe in 1847. The skeleton ended up permanently on exhibit at the Hessiches Landesmuseum Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany, which loaned the ancient elephant to the SAAM for this exhibit. It took three days to reassemble the bones in the gallery rotunda.

While the mastodon is the centerpiece of the exhibit, the Church painting “Natural Bridge, Virginia” is the poster art for the show and cover of the exhibit catalog. Thomas Jefferson owned the Natural Bridge geological wonder and surrounding land when Humboldt made his US pilgrimage. There are over 300 plants and 100 animals named for the much-beloved explorer. The famed Humboldt Penguin and the exquisite Humboldt Lily of California, which has an entire county named for the naturalist explorer, are among the best-known homages. Even surface features of the moon honor Humboldt’s achievements and accomplishments in discovery.

Curator Harvey has outdone Humboldt himself in accomplishing the Herculean feat of transporting the visitor to the naturalist/explorer’s lost world. Together in concert, art, science, and culture have long been a probative, penetrative vehicle of discovery.

Luminist Frederic Edwin Church’s panoramic “Niagara”, 1957

Humboldt’s ambition and resources knew no bounds. His claims to fame defied time and space in an era without social media, television, telephone, radio, or expeditious means of travel. In his 90 years on this planet, he explored much of the known world, charming legions along the way – undoubtedly the sexiest man alive in the 18th and 19th centuries!

“Alexander Von Humboldt in America: Art, Science, and Culture” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum will close on January 3, 2021.

Tickets are available by reservation and free of charge. Walk-ins are allowed pending space. COVID-19 protocols are in place throughout the museums. Masks must be worn at all times. You’ll find you may only see one other person in an exhibit at a time.

Take some time this holiday season for a little cultural and scientific exploration of your own. In addition to the SAAM and the National Portrait Gallery several other museums and Smithsonian locations have opened, some with limited hours and by reservation: The National Zoo, National Air and Space at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, The National Museum of African American History and Culture, The National Museum of the American Indian, and the Renwick Gallery (no reservations required ).

Make your reservations soon. You’ll think you need a passport – and a compass. Bon voyage!

Editor’s Note: Shortly after this column was written the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art temporarily closed due to a rise in positive COVID-19 rates. Otherwise, the Phillips Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, open Christmas and New Year’s Day, have not closed their doors. You can visit the Humboldt exhibit online, including a tour with curator Eleanor Jones Harvey.

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Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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