The nineteenth-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt characterized his life’s work as an endeavor “to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.” In this presentation, Rachael Z. DeLue, Christopher Binyon Sarofim ’86 Professor in American Art at Princeton University, discusses the challenges presented by such an ambitious undertaking. Consideration of the extraordinary images devised by Humboldt to represent the multifarious phenomena of the natural world sets the stage for an exploration of work by artists like Frederic Church and Martin Johnson Heade, who followed in Humboldt’s footsteps in attempting to render the truth of nature, no matter how elusive, wondrous, or strange. From Humboldt’s teeming diagrams of South American mountain ranges to Heade’s exquisite paintings of hummingbirds, Prof. DeLue explores what it meant in the nineteenth century for artists and scientists to wrangle the natural world with pen, ink, and paint and why, so often, the task proved an impossible one.
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