A pivotal moment in US science, art and letters

THE WASHINGTON POST – There should have been a proper welcome-home party for the enormous mastodon skeleton, which hadn’t been seen in the United States (US) for more than 170 years.

When it was unearthed in 1801, during the early days of the American republic, it became something of a celebrity, a tourist attraction and a source of infinite fascination for American and foreign naturalists. Although it was eventually sold and left this country for Europe in 1847, it had for years been an important political and cultural symbol.

In March, it was brought back to the United States to be the centrepiece of a fascinating exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture.” And then the novel coronavirus hit and the museum closed on March 14, six days before the Humboldt exhibition was scheduled to open.

“It was like watching a category-five hurricane approaching,” said Eleanor Jones Harvey, curator of the exhibition, of the frantic days as the virus was spreading and cancellations were rolling through cultural venues across the country.

“We had three or four days’ notice, so we scrambled and got the installation complete, and we came back in later to get the labels and lighting finished.”

Portrait of Baron von Humboldt (1804) by Charles Willson Peale. Oil on canvas
Installation view of ‘Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture.’ PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
‘Exhumation of the Mastodon’ (ca. 1806-08), Charles Willson Peale. Oil on canvas
‘After Eduard Hildebrandt, Humboldt in His Library’ (1856). Chromolithograph on paper

The exhibition, she said, is “turnkey ready” for the public, whenever they are allowed in. Meanwhile, the mastodon, borrowed from a museum in Darmstadt, Germany, sits alone amid empty galleries, with the public largely unaware that one of the great icons of early American history is back on American soil.

Including a mastodon skeleton in an art museum exhibition may seem an odd choice. But when the bones were dug up from a farm in upstate New York, they were thought to be those of a mammoth, an even larger animal, with higher shoulders and tusks more rounded than those of a mastodon.

And the seeming discovery of a largely complete mammoth skeleton – an animal that rivalled the size of the African elephant – was an electrifying event for a nascent republic sensitive to its status and reputation, and desperately in need of affirming national symbols. Over the next few years, mammoth mania took hold, and it caught up artists, scientists and politicians, including Thomas Jefferson.

“I knew I wanted a mastodon skeleton, but I didn’t know about the one in Darmstadt,” said Harvey.

Initially, she was looking for any suitable set of mastodon bones to illustrate one of the essential moments in the history of early American art and science, when the unearthed skeleton gave American naturalists an irrefutable riposte to a popular but scientifically unfounded theory – that everything in the new world was a smaller or more degenerate version of the natural world as found in Europe.

Refuting that theory, propounded by the French scientist the Comte de Buffon, spurred observant Americans to action, including Jefferson, whose 1781 “Notes on Virginia” included an extended and vehement response to de Buffon’s condescension.

The mastodon that Harvey eventually found, in Darmstadt, wasn’t any old mastodon. Rather, it is the mastodon of 1801, the same one seen in Charles Willson Peale’s classic circa 1806-1808 painting “Exhumation of the Mastodon” and the prize possession of Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. A newspaper at the time proclaimed the discovery an “American miracle” when its bones were paraded through Philadelphia; it was declared “The 9th Wonder of the World.”

In 1804, it also helped forge a bond between Jefferson and a young German scientist, Alexander von Humboldt, which helped steer the course of American politics, science and art.

That relationship, and the larger network of social contacts Humboldt forged during a six-week visit to the United States, is the subject of Harvey’s fascinating and wide-ranging exhibition.

Humboldt, a Prussian aristocrat born in 1769, is one of the few almost entirely admirable men of his age – a scientist, an explorer, a humanitarian and an environmentalist avant la letter.