Times & Places

Nineteenth-Century Americans, Exploration, and Science

For 19th-century Americans it seemed everywhere one looked, from the tropics to the Arctic, from the Far East to the far west, to the heavens overhead, the perspective of the earth and the Universe was widening.In the plethora of names from many countries, one heroic leftover from the age of the Enlightenment loomed largest: Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the German naturalist, explorer, encyclopedist, thinker, and beatific presence in the mind of Western man. By the mid-19th century Humboldt was regarded in Britain as a statesman and exemplar of character; in the United States as a staunch friend of American democracy, an opponent of slavery, and no less than "the greatest man in the world;” and as a favorite son by every civilized country. [1]

Humboldt's expertise included the visual arts, and his artistic vision was as sweeping as his learning. In his Kosmos, a lifetime's work embracing (as the title suggests) the entire natural world first published in 1845 (in English in 1848), Humboldt specifically called for a landscape painting which would "flourish with a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy" in response to the magnificent scenery of the Himalayas and especially the Andes and Amazon basin. [2]

His global mandate particularly resonated with Frederic Edwin Church, who avidly sought confrontations with the natural sublime and (undoubtedly) to establish the foundations for an expanded career. Church and his contemporary landscape painters created work that reflected the expanding scientific world. Two aspects of this mid-19th century context are critical to understanding their artistic approaches.

The first is that science, history, and art were much more allied than we might now suspect. The search for the order of natural things was, since the later 18th century, a parallel pursuit to the determination of the history of mankind, and to "historical" art. And, given the continuing legacy of the Enlightenment, the first two endeavors predictably produced splendidly creative results: Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England (1848) take their rightful places as great literature as well as exacting descriptions of knowledge.

The second is that in Britain and America especially, science was still an inquiry intimately connected to—or at least answerable to—theology. Of course, tenets of the two fields often appeared to conflict, but many attempts were made to resolve the difficulties. Paintings by artists such as Church or Thomas Cole (his mentor), offered a synthesis particularly accessible to Anglo-American audiences. That synthesis was verified by the contemporary science of Humboldt, Louis Agassiz, Matthew F. Maury, Isaac Israel Hayes, and others.

[1] The quotation is from Harper’s Weekly, 3 April 1858, 211. For a British opinion of Humboldt, see Morning Post (London), 5 July 1866.

[2] The pioneering article on this subject is Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, “Scientific Sources of the Full-Length Landscape: 1850,” Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (October 1945), 59-65.

Adapted from

Gerald Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980), 34-36.

Related Multimedia

Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program
Nautical Archaeology event; First in Boshell Family Lecture series season; Speakers include: Dr. George F. Bass, founder of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology at Texas A&M University; Dr. James P. Delgado, co-host of the television series The Sea Hunters and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; Dr. Deborah Carlson, classical archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas; Dr. Frederick Hocker, Senior Researcher and Research Coordinator for the National Museum of Denmark's Center for Maritime Archaeology; Dr. Roger Smith, Archaeology Supervisor of the Underwater Archaeology Program, State of Florida; Dr. Corey Malcom, Director of Archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum; Dr. John Broadwater, Program Manager at NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program

Web Resources

Cold Case Closed
Check out curator Sue Canterbury's 2014 blog post on DMA's Uncrated, summarizing how recent maritime discoveries connect to Church's The Icebergs.