Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, and explorer, whose pioneering expeditions to Latin America in the late 18th and early 19th century inspired scientists and artists alike to follow his footsteps to the New World.

In 1799, Humboldt received permission from the Spanish government to embark on a self-funded exploration of the Spanish colonies in Central and South America, to observe and record the land and its peoples from a modern scientific point of view. From 1799 to 1804, Humboldt traversed about 6,000 miles, journeying by foot, horse, and canoe through modern-day Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico. Over the course of his travels, he ventured through dense tropical forests along the Orinoco and Casiquiare Rivers in Venezuela (1799-1800); studied the culture and botany of Cuba (1800, 1804); undertook extensive explorations of the Andes mountains (1801-03); and surveyed the Spanish colonies in Mexico (1803-04).

Humboldt published some thirty illustrated volumes related to his journeys. These publications helped fuel a belief in manifest destiny, and inspired American and European artists including Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, Ferdinand Bellerman, and others, to retrace his voyage. They not only followed Humboldt's journey, but also adopted his scientific-aesthetic approach to portraying the landscape, as demonstrated in the works throughout this exhibition.

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