Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I’ve previously written on this site about Alexander von Humboldt. But the man is the gift that keeps on giving. So here goes again.
In case you haven’t read my earlier post or otherwise know about Humboldt, here is his story in brief: Humboldt was one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, whom hardly anyone today remembers. In large part he invented our modern notion of nature as an interconnected whole — the environment, as it were. Indeed he was one of the first individuals to spearhead the cause of environmentalism and to point out that human activity had a significant impact on the natural world. Even two centuries ago, he recognized and demonstrated the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change, something that the U.S. government of today refuses to acknowledge.
And from 1799 to 1804 he traveled through the Americas, making the scientific observations and developing the insights that would cement his reputation as the most famous man in the Western world after Napoleon. (Ah, to think of a time in Western culture when a scientist was more famous and more esteemed than just about all the politicians and entertainers!) Thomas Jefferson, an American president eager to stay on top of the most cutting-edge science of his day, had him over as a guest. (The idea of it!)
When Humboldt returned to Europe, he gathered the fruits of his research in one monumental book called “Views of Nature.” Again, believe it or not, this scientific tome in its day was a bestseller throughout Europe. Years later he would produce a second monumental work called “Cosmos,” in five volumes, and again it was a pan-European bestseller.
And — the title of it hints at this — as he worked on his first book Humboldt hired numerous European artists to produce engravings of the sceneries that he saw in South America based on his notes, such as the many fantastic vistas of volcanoes unknown in Europe. These engravings, surely not least because of the popularity of his scientific books, came to set the standard for 19th century landscape paintings in America. And Humboldt’s distinction among three styles of nature paintings — the heroic, the picturesque, and the romantic — defined categories with which artists thought about their work. The French scholar Jean-Paul Duviols coined the term “the Humboldtian School” to describe the artistic style that he inspired.
Not only did science and art come together in the Humboldtian nature paintings, but the suddenly prestigious engravings also by extension gave rise to new artistic genre: the travel painting. Therefore just as the earliest modern travel writers, say Alexander Burnes who wrote of his adventures in and around Afghanistan, were developing a literary style to describe the experience of travel in exotic locales, so at the same time their painter peers were developing a visual language to represent the same.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."