Humboldt and Church

by Melanie Hasbrook

An excerpt from the essay written by Andrea Wulf, author of “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World,” for the “Capturing the Cosmos” exhibition brochure

Humboldt insisted that traveling provided the knowledge that was needed to understand the natural world. He urged scientists to leave their desks and books in order to explore. They had to look at flora, fauna, rock strata, and climates globally — otherwise they would be like those geologists who constructed the entire world “according to the shape of the nearest hills surrounding them,” he wrote in his Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807). His call to action for artists was similar: “It would be an enterprise worthy of a great artist to study the aspect and character of all these vegetable groups, not merely in hothouses,” Humboldt declared in his book Views of Nature (1849), “but in their native grandeur in the tropical zone.”

More than any other painter, Church answered this appeal. Such was his admiration (his library at the house at Olana still holds many of Humboldt’s books) that he retraced his hero’s footsteps. Whereas other American artists embarked on the Grand Tour through Europe, Church traveled to South America. He first went in 1853 for almost seven months and then again four years later, for a little longer than two months — “to refresh my memory with Tropical scenery,” as he wrote to a friend before his departure in 1857.[i] In addition to Humboldt’s own descriptions, Church most certainly used his copy of Heinrich Klencke’s early biography of Humboldt (1852) to work out his route through Colombia, Ecuador, and later Mexico — from a trip up the Magdalena River to Honda and Bogotá, and then across the Andes to Quito and Guayaquil. Church saw the same waterfalls and landscapes and climbed the same volcanoes (though never as high as the Prussian explorer). He even sought out one hacienda near Quito where Humboldt had stayed half a century previously and where Church commissioned the local painter Rafael Salas to make a copy of a Humboldt portrait (which he later displayed in his studio in New York and in the sitting room at his home at Olana).

Church also sketched Chimborazo, a volcano some 100 miles south of Quito that had been essential to Humboldt’s ideas. The explorer had climbed Chimborazo in June 1802, when it was believed to be the highest mountain in the world. As Humboldt had stood at the top of the world, his vision of nature clarified. He had realized, for example, that the journey from Quito and then up Chimborazo was like a botanical journey from the Equator to the poles. Where other scientists had viewed plants through the narrow lens of classification, he saw vegetation zones (stacked one on top of the other). In the valleys, he had seen palms and humid bamboo forests; further up, he had found conifers and oaks similar to those in Europe; and even higher, there were alpine plants like those he had collected in Switzerland and lichen that reminded him of specimens from Lapland. Here was nature as a global force with corresponding climate zones across continents. Church was deeply influenced by Humboldt’s descriptions. This, for example, is what Church wrote at the spectacular Tequendama Falls: “At the top of the fall you are in what is the cold country with trees and plants and fruits of temperate climates; at the bottom grow palms, oranges etc.”[ii] Church saw South America through the lens of Humboldt’s writing and then translated it into his paintings —The Heart of the Andes showed everything from the lush tropical species in the valley and the temperate zone higher up to the snow covered peaks of the mountains.

Like Humboldt, Church was at first almost overwhelmed by what he saw: the plants, he wrote to his mother shortly after his arrival in Colombia, “would be the making of a florist,”[iii] some blossoms were “magnificent” and other plants so large that they were of “monstrous size.” Even the flowers on the roadside “would have enchanted a Botanist.”[iv] The birds sang “sweet songs” and had “beautiful plumage,” while some of the mountains rose “in perpendicular Masses like Cathedrals.”[v] Church delighted in what he called in his diary “the great wonders of Nature.”[vi]

Also like Humboldt, he fretted over his luggage. Humboldt was forever concerned about his delicate scientific instruments (he traveled with forty-two instruments that were all individually packed into protective velvet-lined boxes), while Church was worried about his portfolios, paints, and brushes. Without being able to sketch, Church anxiously waited for eight days in the small river port of Honda, about 100 miles northwest of Bogotá, for his bags. When he finally was able to recover his luggage, he wrote in his diary that his “spirits were much raised.”[vii]

Church returned to the United States with sketches of the majestic volcanoes Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe, and Pichincha, as well as with several dozen botanical drawings. During the 1850s and sixties, he painted several stunning South American scenes. His most famous painting, though, was The Heart of the Andes, which he began after his second South American trip. More than anywhere else, Church combined beauty with the most meticulous geological, botanical, and scientific detail — this was Humboldt’s concept of interconnectedness writ large on canvas. Even in its enormous size, The Heart of the Andes followed Humboldt’s ideas, for in his book Cosmos, he had written about “the improvement in landscape painting on a scale of large dimensions.” The painting transported the viewer into the wilderness of South America. Church was, the New York Times declared, the “artistic Humboldt of the new world.”

Cosmos, which made Humboldt internationally famous, was the book that influenced Church most. When the first volume was published in 1845, it became an instant bestseller and was soon translated into a dozen languages. With Cosmos, Humboldt took his readers on an incredible journey from distant nebulae to the core of earth, from geography to poetry, from the migration of the human races to the magical beauty of the aurora borealis. At a time when scientists began to crawl into their narrowing disciplines, Humboldt wrote a book that did exactly the opposite — he brought everything together. It was a description of nature pulsating with life — a “wonderful web of organic life,” as he called it.

[i] F.E. Church to William Henry Osborn, February 23, 1857, Collection Princeton University Libraries.

[ii] F. E. Church to Eliza Church, July 7, 1853, Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera (hereafter Courtesy, The Winterthur Library), [Collection 66/57 x 18.36] as cited in Kevin J. Avery, Church’s Great Picture: The Heart of the Andes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993), p. 17.

[iii] F.E. Church to Eliza Church, April 28,1853, Courtesy, The Winterthur Library [57 x 18.29a].

[iv] F. E. Church to Joseph Church, June 9, 1853, Courtesy, The Winterthur Library [57 x 18.35].

[v] F. E. Church to Eliza Church, April 28, 1853, [57 x 18.29a]; and May 25,1853, [57 x 18.34], both Courtesy, The Winterthur Library.

[vi] F. E. Church, Diary of 1853 trip to South America (originally written in Spanish), entry for August 26,1853, Collection Olana State Historic Site, OL.1980.27.

[vii] Ibid, entry for May 30,1853.