Book Review Essay

Humboldt’s New World Landscape

Frederic Edwin Church, born in Hartford, Connecticut, is now generally regarded as America’s greatest landscape painter—either of his own time, 1826–1900, or any other—but he is not usually recognized as an innovator. He was the only pupil Thomas Cole was ever persuaded to accept and is usually understood as carrying forward if not epitomizing Cole’s vision, the one we like to identify with the Hudson River school. But it turns out, when you read far enough into Andrea Wulf’s new biography of the German explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt, that Cole was not Church’s master, either aesthetically or spiritually.[1] Nor did Church espouse the usual Hudson River school teachings, like the Emersonian theme of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, for example. Church’s real master was Humboldt, and he found his calling spelt out for him in Humboldt’s Cosmos, Volume 2 (1850):

He who, with a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature manifested in mountains, rivers, and forest glades, has himself traveled over the torrid zone [as Humboldt did in South America, 1799–1804], and seen the luxuriance and diversity of vegetation, not only on the cultivated sea-coasts, but on the declivities of the snow-crowned Andes . . . or in the primitive forests, amid the net-work of rivers lying between the Orinoco and the Amazon, can alone feel what an inexhaustible treasure remains still unopened by the landscape painter . . . ; and how all the spirited and admirable efforts already made in this portion of art fall far short of the magnitude of those riches of nature of which it may yet become possessed.

Church must have felt, in reading these lines, as if Humboldt were addressing him directly. In fact, as my italics attempt to suggest, he was sketching what would become Church’s quintessential subject and theme: the torrid zones of the Amazon and Orinoco, the snowcapped volcanoes of the Andes, and all those gigantic panoramas of inexhaustible fecundity and diversity that were to Humboldt at the very center of the Creation. He went on, even more explicitly, “Are we not justified in hoping that land­scape painting will flourish with a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy when artists of merit shall . . . [venture], far in the interior of continents, in the humid mountain valleys of the tropical world, to seize, with the genuine freshness of a pure and youthful spirit, on the true image of the varied forms of nature?”

Church wasted no time. The second volume of Humboldt’s Cosmos, a five-volume summa of his prolific career, came out in 1850 and was quickly translated into English. By the spring of 1853, Church had launched an expedition, with his friend Cyrus Field, to Colombia and Ecuador, closely following Humboldt’s original path of 1801, climbing many of the same peaks that Humboldt had climbed, including the active volcano Cotopaxi, and sketching enthusiastically as he went—that too Humboldt had done, diagramming and minutely measuring everything he saw. Church’s trip lasted six months, from April to October 1853, and was followed by another in 1857, designed particularly to reach Chimborazo, a volcano also studied closely by Humboldt, on foot and in print, notably in Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique (English translation, 1814), Humboldt’s most lavishly-illustrated work. The confluence of science and art in all this is striking, and its implications—for Church and for others—run deep and have surprisingly far-reaching consequences.

Back in his New York City studio, Church began a series of large canvases, including The Andes of Ecuador in 1855, South American Landscape in 1856, and View of Cotopaxi in 1857, culminating with the gigantic Heart of the Andes (5½ feet high, 10 feet wide) in 1859. Its dramatic exhibition in New York created a sensation, with long lines of viewers waiting for hours to be immersed in its spectacular realism, a display of painterly authenticity never even imagined by Thomas Cole (whose allegories of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, The Voyage of Life, and The Course of Empire look quaint by comparison). Placed theatrically at the end of a long gallery, the picture could be viewed with telescopes and opera glasses to enhance its illusion of reality—it was not just a painting, but an environment. It was so real that botanists discovered all of its trees and plants could be identified. The New York Times recognized at once the painting’s inspiration and called Church the “artistic Humboldt of the new world.” At the very moment that Heart of the Andes was causing such a stir, Humboldt died on May 6 in Berlin, unbeknownst to Church. He wrote to a friend three days later of his desire to send the painting to Germany so that Humboldt could see the “scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago.” That it was also patently an hommage to Humboldt was left unsaid.[2] Wulf concludes, “More than any other painter Church had answered Humboldt’s appeal to unite art and science.”

Humboldt’s consuming interest in volcanoes, reflected so obsessively in Church’s paintings, originated in a theory about the earth’s creation. While some late eighteenth-century scientists had notions about oceanic vortices, Symmes’s holes, and mael­ströms as keys to the mystery of our planet’s formation, Humboldt theorized (rightly) that volcanoes were linked to one another and to the molten interior of the earth. He spent five months in 1802 scaling every volcano—there were dozens—reachable from his base camp in Quito. At the crater of one such peak, Pichincha, Wulf describes Humboldt lying

flat on a narrow rock ledge that formed a small natural balcony over the deep crater. Every two or three minutes violent tremors shook this little platform, but he remained unperturbed and crawled to the edge to peer over into Pichincha’s deep crater. Bluish flames flickered inside, and Humboldt was almost suffocated by the sulphuric vapours. “No imagination would be able to conjure up something as sinister, mournful, and deathly as we saw there,” Humboldt said.

But he believed he was looking at the earth’s cosmogony, the center of everything. Church’s most strenuous attempt to convey this Humboldtian vision came in 1862 with Cotopaxi, an awesome 4 by 7 foot painting of the highest peak in the Andean cordillera (19,000 feet) in the throes of violent eruption, but seen from a great distance. Its sulphuric smoke rises darkly and billows like a pall across two-thirds of the sky, almost obliterating the fiery sun. In the foreground are rocky cliffs and a forbidding waterfall pouring through a wide crevasse in the broken earth’s crust. The whole panorama is bathed in a coppery hot glow.

Tempting as it may be to view this theatrical painting as Apocalyptic, it was rather a lesson in what Humboldt understood as connectivity. His empirical knowledge of the earth was vast, but his greater impulse was to see not just the networks of affinity between all physical phenomena, but between the seen and the unseen. Volume 2 of Cosmos was dedicated to all the unscientific ways we see and understand nature—weighing the essential value that philosophy, literature, and landscape painting have contrib­uted to our understanding, and arguing for the inseparability of beauty, feeling, and imagination from the merely objectified physical landscape as reported by science. Humboldt never succumbed to the ethereal German idealists like Schelling, Fichte or Novalis, never became a romantic pantheist, never lost his eye for the real thing. Emerson put it nicely when praising Humboldt’s prodigious knowledge and means of getting it: “his eyes are natural telescopes & microscopes.” So in Cotopaxi there is no Christian fable, no Garden of Eden or its antithesis, only the awesome beauty and power of nature at work, seen by telescope and microscope, building and rebuilding itself.

Then Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Hill and others took Church’s vision to the American West. Or that is the usual transition in histories of American landscape painting, gliding from the Hudson River school westward to the Rocky Mountains. But the actual history was more like a transposition—of Humboldt’s vision as celebrated in Heart of the Andes into the equally extraordinary, equally snowcapped Sierra Nevadas. But in 1860 nobody had really seen the Sierras yet, and John Muir—who later became an avid reader of Humboldt—didn’t arrive to begin celebrating them until well after 1868. The first true artist on the scene was Carleton Watkins, a self-taught photographer from San Francisco, bold in his use of new technology, who went to Yosemite in 1861 with a dozen mules to carry his huge glass-plate camera, plus a hefty stereoscopic camera, along with tripods and chemicals and a supply of 18-by-22-inch “mammoth” plate glass negatives. He returned with 30 of these negatives and 100 stereoscopic views, which were at once recognized as “groundbreaking technically and artistically.”[3] They so impressed President Lincoln that in 1864 he persuaded Congress to pass legislation preserving Yosemite Valley, the first step in what would become the National Park System in 1916. Mount Watkins in Yosemite was named for the photographer in 1865, and he went on to many worldwide honors and travels in the 1870s and 1880s.

Photo caption: William Henry Jackson photographs a view from Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park (ca. 1884). William Henry Jackson Collection (20102239), History Colorado.

The pivotal moment, however, came in 1861 when Watkins’ mammoth plate glass images of Yosemite were shown in New York. Albert Bierstadt saw them and was bowled over. The son of German immigrants, Bierstadt grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, studied in Düsseldorf in the 1850s, and—now in New York—was on his way to become a Hudson River painter when he decided to travel west in 1859 with a United States government land-surveying team led by Col. Frederick Lander. A good many pictures resulted from this, but Bierstadt didn’t decide to move west until he saw Watkins’ Yosemite images; perhaps the fact that his brother was a professional photographer influenced his eye as well. In any case, careful comparison of Bierstadt’s paintings in Yosemite and the Sierras with Watkins’ images of the same places will convince anyone that by 1863 Bierstadt’s aesthetic inspiration had changed—it took on the fine-grained precision and light-sensitive authenticity of photography—and it followed, often almost literally, in Watkins’ compositional tracks. He was now in a position to compete with Frederic Church, striving to create, in Laura Dassow Walls’s apt words, “vast landscapes as exotic, and even more thrilling and emotionally moving, as anything in the Andes or the Amazon.”[4]

It is no accident that the largest of our national parks (6,289,821 acres) mostly in Nevada, not far from Yosemite, is called the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Something of Humboldt’s original vision still shapes the way we see our national parks, particularly those in the Far West. Indeed, once your eye has been informed, who can summon up the Yosemite images of William Henry Jackson on Glacier Point or of Ansel Adams’ photographs, El Capitan or Moon and Half Dome—as examples—without thinking of Humboldt?

Using the same “mammoth” plate glass negative camera pioneered by Carleton Watkins, Jackson’s career was launched ten years after Watkins’ when, from 1870 to 1878, he was the official photographer for the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. In 1871 he joined the painter Thomas Moran on a trip to Yellowstone, and their exotic images (Moran’s colorful watercolors, Jackson’s black-and-white vistas) combined to impress Congress enough that it declared Yellowstone “a national park” in March of 1873. In April of that year, Moran produced his gigantic painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, measuring 7 by 12 feet, in his effort to produce a landscape “as exotic and thrilling” as anything Church had seen in the Andes. His effort failed—the treatment is overblown and grandiloquent—but it attests again to the power of new science and new technology when combined with an aesthetic vision as distinctive as that of Watkins and Jackson.

Yet few Americans are likely to see Humboldt as a contemporary force, in the way we now envision our landscapes, at least, or even as a primary influence in our history. That credit nowadays still goes to Darwin, or to Tennyson’s lurid caricature of it, “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Think of all those Nature specials on television that demonize the ferocity of animals (ignoring our own, of course). Prevailingly, nature is assumed to be a battle­field, where species contest for survival with one another and with the vicissitudes of their habitats—predation, diseases, droughts, earthquakes, floods—adapting and evolving under the constant threat of extinction. We attribute the phrase “survival of the fittest” to Darwin even though Herbert Spencer wrote it, in reaction to The Origin of Species, to describe human behavior—the ruthless American economic strife of the 1860s. That all plant and animal species must do battle with us, or we with them, is perhaps the bitterest consequence of this principle.

Andrea Wulf reminds us of how false these constructions of Darwin are by showing that Humboldt was not only his teacher, but his guide and model, and the source of his inspiration. When Darwin assembled the books he would need on The Beagle, Humboldt’s seven-volume account of his Latin American expedi­tion, Personal Narrative, was crucial—it provided (just as Humboldt’s writings did for Church) the focus of all his ambitions. “My admiration of his famous personal narrative (part of which I almost know by heart),” Darwin wrote, “determined me to travel in distant countries, and led me to volunteer as naturalist in her Majesty’s ship Beagle.” The English translation Darwin used came out from 1816 to 1829. He first began reading it during his last year at Cambridge and said it “stirred up in me a burning zeal” to make “even the most humble contribution” to science, copying down long passages and reading them aloud to his friends. Excited by Humboldtian visions as he prepared for his expedition, he declared, “I cannot hardly sit still,” dashed to the University’s botanical garden to “gaze at the Palm trees” and rushed home to study botany and geology, imagining the luxuri­ant tropics and awesome mountain peaks as he “read and reread Humboldt,” and “plagued” his friends “with talking about tropical scenery.” After reaching landfall in Brazil, Darwin felt the truth of all Humboldt had described. He wrote to his father, “if you really want to have a notion of tropical countries study Humboldt.” To a friend he confessed, “I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him.” And in his journal he admitted being so over­whelmed by Brazil’s tropical luxuriance (“it would make a florist go wild”) that “I am at present fit only to read Humboldt . . . [for] he like another Sun illumines everything I behold.” Friends said his letters were full of “vivid, Humboldt-like pictures,” and his sister commented about his style “that you had, probably from reading so much of Humboldt, got his phraseology.”

Wulf sums up the deeper significance of this influence, in terms that echo Humboldt’s effect on Church:

Humboldt showed Darwin how to investigate the natural world not from the claustrophobic angle of a geologist or zoologist, but from within and without. Both Humboldt and Darwin had the rare ability to focus in on the smallest detail—from a fleck of lichen to a tiny beetle—and then to pull back and out to examine global and comparative patterns. This flexibility of perspective allowed them both to understand the world in a completely new way. It was telescopic and microscopic, sweepingly panoramic and down to cellular levels, and moving in time from the distant geological past to the future economy of native populations.

Note that it was not just a matter of changing scale and fluid perspectives, but of the ability to connect wildly disparate phenomena, and discover essential resemblances and relationships among them, that distinguished Humboldt’s teaching. Read the great last paragraph of The Origin of Species evoking the “tangled bank” and its “web of complex relations,” and you will think not only of a modern ecologist acutely aware of the interdependence of species, but of Humboldt’s voice and vision— perhaps even his phraseology—echoed in Darwin’s.

One of Wulf’s best discoveries is a passage in Personal Narrative “highlighted by Darwin in his own copy.” She suggests—persuasively, I think—that Darwin’s “tangled bank” paragraph was derived directly from it. The translation was by Helen Maris Williams, who worked on it with Humboldt’s help in Paris:

The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millepedes, and cecilias. There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused through­out the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.

It is significant that Humboldt greatly admired Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (1839), wrote him a detailed letter of praise as soon as it was published, and met with him enthusiastically (doing all of the talking) in 1842. He wasn’t the least bit disturbed by the young scientist’s new ideas about evolving species; indeed, some of them were his own. In Volume 5 of his Personal Narrative, Humboldt had already recognized how species survived by rapid reproduction, and how natural predators kept their numbers in check—capy­baras attacked by jaguars on land and by crocodiles in the water, for example, or jaguars killing tapirs while monkeys screamed, “affrighted at this struggle.” “What hourly carnage in the magnif­icent calm picture of Tropical forests,” Darwin penciled in beside this passage, “To show how animals prey on each other, what a positive check.” It was the essence of what he would argue in 1859.

It has long puzzled me that Henry David Thoreau did not seem to react to Darwin’s theories at all. Clearly he read Voyage of the Beagle, referring to Darwin’s description of the “savages” of Tierra del Fuego in the first chapter of Walden. But no other reference to Darwin is made, notably when the opportunity seems, to a modern reader, almost inevitable: the battle of the red and black ants, described so minutely in chapter XII, “Brute Neighbors.” Thoreau sees “that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black.” Despite some bemused anthropomorphism (Myrmidons, heroes, battle cries), Thoreau clearly sees it as a microcosm of all warfare, animal or human, an all-out “internecine war” that could only end in death or dismemberment. “I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea.” Thoreau is relentless in showing the combatants up close, as if under a microscope, focusing on one big black ant against three small red ones. He concludes, “I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door.” No Transcendentalism here, no Emersonian reference to “balance-loving nature.” But no Darwin either.

Andrea Wulf’s answer to this is simply that Thoreau read Alexander von Humboldt’s bestseller Cosmos when it appeared in 1850. She demonstrates that Thoreau’s career had reached an impasse by 1849, after three drafts of Walden that didn’t satisfy him, and the critical failure of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Its mode of meandering poetical meditation met with derision, and no sales, prompting Thoreau to decide that nature’s poetry, not his own, was what interested him. In 1850, he stopped writing poetry completely and began reading Humboldt. By 1853 references to Humboldt in his notebooks and journals were frequent, and the character of his journals changed dramatically: its entries became more factual, systematic and disciplined. He had written rather apologetically in 1841,

My life has been the poem I would have writ,
But I could not both live and utter it.

Now he chose to live the poetry in a new way, finding it in the scrupulous observation of natural phenomena and not in himself. He took up Walden again and reconceived it along Humboldtian lines. Wulf is not alone in discerning this new swerve into scientific empiricism,[5] but any reader can see it in the difference between its long overcrowded first chapter (“Economy”) and its pithy second chapter(“Where I Lived and What I Lived For”), where the new empiricism breaks out. So too did refer­ences to Humboldt. In a journal entry he called out for a “cyanometer,” the unique instrument Humboldt used in his South American travels to measure the blueness of the sky; he compared Humboldt’s “thunderous” Orinoco with his local equivalent, the placid Concord; the nearby hills in which he hiked were his Andes; the Atlantic was to him only a “large Walden Pond.” The scale didn’t matter, Thoreau argued: “Stand­ing on the Concord cliffs,” he declared himself to be “with Humboldt.”[6]

That meant, for Thoreau, to be an explorer and discoverer of a new world. Nowhere is this spirit more clearly shown in Walden than in the “thawing sand bank” passage of the “Spring” chapter, a culminating moment in the book. “Few phenomena give me more delight that to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad,” Thoreau begins, and he’s off on a riff that lasts many pages, all breathlessly improvisatory, detail after detail, his imagination quickened by the spectacle of Nature forming and reforming itself. “[T]he sand begins to flow down the slopes like lava,” he writes, as if he were Humboldt on the slopes of Chimborazo:

As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling, as you look down on them, the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards’ paws or birds’ feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements of all kinds. It is a truly grotesque vegetation, whose forms and color we see imitated in bronze, a sort of architectural foliage more ancient and typical than acanthus, chicory, ivy, vine . . .

Laciniated? Lobed and imbricated? The thalluses of lichens? Thoreau’s language here fairly spills over with creative energy. No words are too rich or strange to evoke nature’s exuberant creativity. And nothing is exempt from its abundance, not even bowels and excrements:

When I see . . . this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe . . .

Surely a different version of Darwin’s tangled bank is here, with Humboldt’s vision of the multitudinous forms of nature behind them both.

Andrea Wulf’s purpose in The Invention of Nature is first to bring back recognition of Humboldt’s achievements, which were known and celebrated when he died in 1859 but are now forgotten or routinely ignored. Apart from the well-known figures I have mentioned above, she discusses at length Humboldt’s profound influence on Goethe, especially his botanical writings; on the ecological thinking of Ernst Haeckel; on Simón Bolívar and the liberation of South Americans from Spanish imperialism; on Thomas Jefferson and issues of American slavery; on George Perkins Marsh’s groundbreaking study of environmental destruc­tion in 1864, Man and Nature; and on John Muir, who learned greatly from both Marsh and Humboldt. Brief appearances are also made by Louis Agassiz; Edgar Allan Poe, whose Eureka in 1849 was dedicated to Humboldt; Walt Whitman, who called himself a Kosmos and wrote a poem with that title; Coleridge and Wordsworth, just to name a few. Did anybody of importance not read Humboldt?

Wulf’s second purpose, realized equally well, is even more valuable. It is to demonstrate that modern environmentalism, and the way we understand our landscape now, goes straight back to Humboldt. As she puts it in her “Prologue,”

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

But that concept would not be complete without her book-long demonstration that poetry and art were just as important to Humboldt as the tiniest organisms:

In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination makes him a visionary.


[1] THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.00.

[2] Quoted in Wulf, p. 280. Additional sources on the Church-Humboldt connection are Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (Chicago, 2009), a comprehensive study of Humboldt’s influence on American writers and artists; and Stephen Jay Gould, “Church, Humboldt and Darwin: The Tension and Harmony of Art and Science,” in Frederic Edwin Church, ed. by Franklin Kelly (Washington, 1989), the exhibition catalogue from The National Gallery of Art published by the Smithsonian Institution Press. Wulf has made excellent use of both of these valuable resources.

[3] See Bruce Hathaway, “About Carleton Watkins,” Smithsonian Magazine (July 2008).

[4] The Passage to Cosmos, p. 135.

[5] See Robert Sattelmeyer, Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ, 1988) and Laura Dassow Walls, Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth Century Natural Science (Madison, WI, 1995).

[6] In Randall Fuller’s recent study, The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (New York, 2017), he claims that its publication in 1859 was transformative for (among others) “Henry David Thoreau, who used Darwin’s theory to redirect his life’s work.” A preposterous idea, since Thoreau’s career was fully shaped by 1859, with only “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and “Walking” to come before his death in 1862. Furthermore, the theory that did redirect his life’s work in the early 1850s was, as Wulf shows beyond all argument, Humboldt’s.