Humboldt and the Cosmos

4 Church

Heart of the Andes (1859) by Frederic Church, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The subject of this series of posts (1,2,3) Alexander von Humboldt is known for the breadth of his interests and for his writings that illustrate how all parts of the world, and our experience of it, are connected.  In terms of botany, he wrote that in a rainforest:  “We observed with astonishment how many things are connected with the existence of a single plant” (Wulf, 2015, p. 74).  There were the epiphytes living on the trees along with hosts of insects and other invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, etc.  Then there were the climatic, geological, and geographical elements that determined what plants grew where.  In the last post, I discussed Humboldt’s contributions to plant geography.  Here I want to broaden the perspective further and describe his writings linking science to the humanities.  While Humboldt mentioned the aesthetics of landscape and of living organisms in many of his writings, he addressed these themes most explicitly in his five-volume Cosmos (1845-1862) written toward the end of his life.  The first two of these books are the ones still most widely read because they are less scientifically dense than the later works.  The first is an introduction and synopsis, and the second a summary of the history of human beings’ appreciation for the natural world.

Though Humboldt wrote Cosmos late in life, his early experiences shaped the views he expressed there.  While a student, he met George Forster who had sailed around the world with Captain James Cook.  Forster had integrated science and aesthetics in his writing, and considered knowing and feeling as parts of a unitary experience of nature.  This approach and Humboldt’s attraction to it is not surprising considering he and Forster were living during the early years of the Romantic movement and its reaction against the emphasis on reason during the Enlightenment.  A little later in his career, while he was working as a mining inspector, Humboldt met Wolfgang Goethe and they became fast friends.  Their first meeting was in the year when Goethe wrote Metamorphosis of Plants (Arber, 1946.)  They visited each other often and at one point Humboldt made a three-month stay at the poet’s home in Jena.  Goethe had created a botanical garden there and had a herbarium.  This fed Humboldt’s interest in plants, and Goethe’s argument that nature must be experienced through feeling also had a profound effect on him.  After his stay in Jena, Humboldt felt that he had “grown new organs,” that he perceived the world in a new way, that “ what speaks to the soul escapes measurement,” which is a meaningful statement for someone who relied so heavily on scientific instruments in his investigation of nature (Wulf, 2015, p. 310).

One element in Humboldt’s linkage of different fields and experiences of nature was his focus on the visual.  While a student, he had received art instruction from a noted graphic artist, Daniel Chodowiecki.  Most of the publications resulting from his voyage to Latin America with Aimé Bonpland were illustrated, often lavishly so.  The botanical artist Pierre Turpin, who worked at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, did most of the illustrations beginning with their first publication, Essay on the Geography of Plants, with figures that included the monumental diagram of the relationship between altitude and plant species distributions (see last post).  The seven volumes describing the species Humboldt and Bonpland collected had over 700 illustrations, many of them hand-colored.  Turpin worked mostly from dried specimens, though the explorers had made many sketches that guided him; only one by Humboldt is still extant (Lack, 2009).  They also made landscape sketches that Turpin turned into illustrations as well.

One of the most significant sections in the second volume of Cosmos deals with landscape.  Humboldt argues that the scientific and aesthetic come together so powerfully that they cannot be separated.  This reflection, among others, inspired many 19th century landscape painters, perhaps most notably Frederic Church, who traveled to the Andes to experience Chimborazo and other peaks first-hand and created a number of paintings.  Particularly striking is the massive Heart of the Andes, which caused a stir when it was shown in New York, with viewers lined up to pay 25 cents to view it (see above).  A very different artist was also inspired by Humboldt.  The zoologist Ernst Haeckel had trained in art, so it’s not surprising that reading Cosmos solidified his view of the importance of art in communicating about science.  While Haeckel is best known for his book of illustrations called Art Forms in Nature, two other images come to mind when I think of him.  One is of the interior of his home that he filled with furniture, lamps, and wall decorations based on jellyfish forms.  The other is his iconic tree of life diagram with a very realistic leafless tree, a human at the top.

I have to admit that I too have been inspired by Humboldt.  When I first became interested in the aesthetics of biology, it was exhilarating to find an author who both validated my viewpoint and deepened it.  The fact that he also had exciting adventures on his Latin American voyage and was interested in plants, didn’t hurt either.  Since that time in the 1980s when I first read some of his work, Humboldt has received more attention, including Andrea Wulf’s 2015 biography.  He deserves such scrutiny because he still has a great deal to tell us.  A movement in that direction is the Alexander von Humboldt Portal hosted by the Berlin State Library, a good place to start exploring Humboldt’s papers and information about his life and writings.  And to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth, Nature Ecology & Evolution has collated a series of articles related to his work and Science published an essay on his importance today.  In addition, Wulf has teamed with the artist Lillian Melcher to create a graphic non-fiction book, The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

Lack, H. W. (2009). Alexander von Humboldt and the Botanical Exploration of the Americas. New York, NY: Prestel.

Wulf, A. (2015). The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. New York, NY: Knopf.

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