After Charles Darwin’s writings reiterated the values of travel and observation for career development, many naturalists and landscape painters took advantage of exciting wilderness experiences.
Those who journeyed in the Neotropics retraced parts of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and, after 1859, their painted landscapes situated his provocative ideas in visual terms, often without attempted resolution of the controversies surrounding the theory of evolution of species by natural selection. This freedom from dogma permitted artistic license, too, and in Heade’s case, the artist exhibited a fearless attitude toward color, laying down purple beside peach, red beside pink. He also exploited new subject matter.
Many American artists shared Darwin’s interest in the thought of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1850), who had traveled throughout Spanish America with French botanist Aime’ Jacques Alexandre Bonpland (1773-1858).1 Humboldt, who discussed the possibilities of a Panama canal with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) in the United States, published his travel experiences as a philosophical discourse in 1845. Advocating unity amidst complexity in nature, his monumental Kosmos proposed rational consideration of nature.2
Church’s paintings of nature exposed wider audiences to Humboldt’s magisterial ideas. Church’s grand painting of Niagara Falls, unveiled in New York in 1857, toured throughout England, and his breath-taking Heart of the Andes coincided with Humboldt’s death in 1859.3 Heart of the Andes, its sequels, and imitations cultivated fertile imaginations with visionary landscapes for Darwin’s Origin of Species published that same year.
The scale and drama of Church’s dazzling South American pictures were a new sort of landscape art that eclipsed earlier scenic views of New England and the Hudson River. Informed by European natural philosophy, Church’s work also created an audience for natural history, which was easily captivated and organized by the brilliant Swiss-born naturalist, Louis Agassiz 1807-1873).
Public embrace of Church’s Heart of the Andes provided Agassiz with a to situate, confront, and oppose Darwinism. The charismatic lecturer fortified his adopted home front, breaking ground in 1859 for the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.4
Church’s work also defined the dynamics of the tropical wilderness that American speculators, leaders in this same educated audience, were about to exploit. Asher Durand, president of the National Academy of Design, resisted their shifting alliances. In 1855, he warned art students: “go not abroad,” lest appreciation of homespun beauty be lost to “the most brilliant exotic.”5
Seeking to foil exoticism, Durand, a founder of the Hudson River School of painting, took his thesis from the writings of the New England essayist Henry David Thoreau, but even Thoreau had welcomed the opportune. In 1841, he noted with relief: “occasionally we rise above the necessity of virtue into an unchangeable morning light, in which we have not to choose in a dilemma between right and wrong, but simply to live right on and breathe the circumambient air.”6
Heade the artist exercised this freedom from choice in nature. By contrast, Heade the writer imposed the “necessity of virtue” for almost two decades in a series of determined letters defending a rational approach to wildlife.
- The primary interest of Humboldt (1769-1859) was a universal morphology, or structure of nature, influenced, as he acknowledged, by the ideas of the German poet Goethe. For a good summary, see David L. Miller, Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1969 (Austin: Humanities Research Center/University of Texas at Austin, 1969), p. 4.
- Humboldt’s 5-volume Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (J. G. Cotta: Stuttgart and Tubingen, 1845-62) began as lectures delivered in Berlin and translated into English and other languages.
- Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 71-74.
- For more on Agassiz (1807-1873), see Mary P. Winsor, Reading the Shape of Nature: Comparative Zoology at the Agassiz Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 4, 9-11.
- Durand (1796-1886) quoted by Ella M. Foshay, Reflections of Nature: Flowers in American Art (New York: Alfred A. Knopf with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1984), p. 125.
- Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau ed. by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (New York: Dover, 1962) I: 84.