Nature and Nation: Britain and America in the 19th Century

David Lowenthal explores natural history enthusiasms among Victorian Britons and Americans, and finds an explanation for their differing approaches to conservation.

In 1859, the year of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species , the American artist Frederic Edwin Church’s huge, magnificent painting ‘The Heart of the Andes’ was unveiled in New York City to intense excitement. It celebrated the conjunction of nature and art preached by Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the epoch’s most admired naturalist. As Rebecca Bedell has shown, the overall composition and almost every pictorial detail of the work had ‘its counterpart in Humboldt’s words’. Church had steeped himself in Humboldt’s travel writings, visited his favourite South American scenes, stayed in Humboldt’s abode in Ecuador. After the opening, Church sent his painting to Humboldt, to re-experience the scenery that had delighted him sixty years previously. He was too late; the great explorer had just died. Inspired by Humboldt, naturalists of the day adopted his integrative perspective, encouraging understanding of nature through poetry, gardening, and landscape painting.

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