Published February 23, 2021 by Bowdoin College Museum of Art

BCMA Acquires Rare Print of Scientist Alexander von Humboldt

a picture of a library in muted, golden tones, with one figure seated

Alexander von Humboldt in His Library, 1856, chromolithograph, after Eduard Hildebrandt, German, 1818–1868. Gift of Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. H ’08 in honor of Christopher P. Monkhouse.  Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Last month Earle G. Shettleworth Jr. H’08, Maine State Historian, donated to the BCMA a rare 1856 chromolithograph of celebrated Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt. Shettleworth made this gift in honor of Christopher P. Monkhouse, a dear friend of the Museum who passed away in January. Monkhouse had a distinguished career as a museum curator in Providence, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and Chicago before retiring to Brunswick several years ago. Like Humboldt, he was a great researcher, had a large library, and collected objects and art works throughout his life. He will be greatly missed.

On this occasion, we have invited Dr. Eleanor J. Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, to write about Humboldt and the historic significance of this print. Harvey recently authored the critically acclaimed Smithsonian exhibition, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture. She writes:

Eduard Hildebrandt’s chromolithograph of Alexander von Humboldt in his Library is a charming, lovingly rendered portrayal of the aging explorer by one of his closest friends. Based on one of his watercolors, Hildebrandt shows the 86-year old surrounded by the trappings and symbols of his long and accomplished life. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was arguably the most important naturalist of the nineteenth century. He lived for 90 years, published more than 36 books, traveled over 4,000 miles across four continents, and wrote well over 25,000 letters to an international network of colleagues and admirers. The book that made him an international celebrity was the multi-volume Cosmos: A Physical Description of the Universe, in which he envisioned everything in the universe as interconnected, or as he described it: “a unity in diversity of phenomena; a harmony, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath of life.”

Humboldt had an infectious personality and boundless curiosity, surrounded himself with some of the leading minds of his era and never stopped talking. Charismatic, annoying, exuberant, caustic, but undeniably relevant, Humboldt straddled the enlightenment penchant for wanting to know everything about everything and the establishment of modern scientific methods designed to query that accrued knowledge. He spoke and read numerous languages, enjoyed literature and art, and counted notable artists among his close circle of friends. Living in Paris until 1827, Humboldt was a fixture at the salons, intellectual social gatherings often hosted by talented women otherwise denied access to scientific and literary societies. At this time Humboldt’s circle included the American authors Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Cooper’s daughter Susan (who would go on to become an influential nature writer herself), artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, sculptor Horatio Greenough, and the Marquis de Lafayette. To emphasize the connection he drew between his increasingly liberal political views and his support for the ideals of American democracy, Humboldt began referring to himself as “half an American,” a tendency that we in the United States embraced as evidence of his high regard.

In 1827 Humboldt moved to Berlin where he became the center of Prussia’s scientific community as he had been its lodestar in Paris. It was here that he met artist Eduard Hildebrandt in 1843. The two men shared a passion for travel and became close friends. It was with Humboldt’s encouragement that the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV underwrote the artist’s trip to Brazil in 1844-45, including a brief detour to the eastern United States, during which Hildebrandt made hundreds of watercolors, many of which became part of the Royal Collections in Berlin. A decade later, Hildebrandt made the watercolor that served as the basis of this print, summing up Humboldt’s life in much the same way Humboldt had summed up the universe in his books.

A visit with Humboldt in his library was to encounter the man on his home turf, surrounded by over 11,000 books, countless stacks of correspondence with a global network of peers and admirers, forty years’ worth of travel diaries and field notes, maps, globes, paintings, sculptures, stuffed specimens, rocks, and even a fragment of a meteorite. The artworks include busts of the Prussian monarchs and renowned explorers, a model of the Obelisk of Luxor, and paintings derived from his South American travels. A stuffed and mounted nightbird from the Cave of Caripe along the Orinoco River named by Humboldt (Steatornis Caripensis) presides over the room at upper left, reminiscent of Poe’s raven in its brooding mien. In the study seen through the door at the rear of the library is Humboldt’s writing desk, where he sorted decades of notes and observations, snippets cut from letters and memoranda filed in envelopes by subject, the vast data trove that undergird his life’s work. Through that doorway we see several of Humboldt’s treasured magnetic, astronomical and meteorological instruments, vital to his studies in South America, Mexico, and Russia. Perched above is a stuffed bald eagle, reminiscent of the one in Charles Willson Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, which Humboldt visited in 1804.

By the time this print was published, Humboldt’s travels were mostly confined to his apartments (owned by the family of composer Felix Mendelssohn). Like Cosmos, Humboldt’s library served as a distillation of his personal universe. Despite the somewhat chaotic array, the room, like Humboldt’s mind, has its own internal order, reflecting his myriad interests and knitting together disparate parts of the globe. In a nod to the places where Humboldt gathered his most significant information, the physical globe displayed on the table in the center features the countries in North and South America.

Hildebrandt’s composition places the viewer in the position of Humboldt’s latest guest. He peers at us, curious and alert as we take in his rich and varied environment. Time has not dimmed his intellect, and his questions were famously incisive and sometimes ruthless. Little wonder that even late in his life, Humboldt remained a magnet for Americans traveling abroad. He welcomed them all, extolled the virtues of democracy, decried our inability to abolish slavery, and queried his guests as a means of staying current with American culture and politics. Not surprisingly, for Americans this chromolithograph became a cherished memento of a visit with Humboldt in the final years of his life.

Eleanor J. Harvey
Senior Curator, Smithsonian American Art Museum