This illustration accompanied one of the earliest and most famous scientific studies of the Americas. The study was made by Alexander von Humboldt, whose five-year trip through Spanish America with the botanist Aimé Bonpland, between 1799 and 1804, led to the publication of Vues des cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, and other works, publications that had an extraordinary impact in Europe. For centuries, the Spanish government had restricted travel to its colonies by non-Spaniards. Humboldt thus gave European readers a fresh glimpse of the wonders of both nature and culture to be found in Spanish America.
In this magnificent panorama, Humboldt captures the view of the mountain Chimborazo, the highest peak in modern Ecuador. By the categories established by Romantic writers and artists in the late 18th century, this dramatic, snow-capped mountain fit the category of the sublime—an emotional sensibility in which beauty is bound to the extraordinary and overwhelming, the terrifying and the dangerous. Yet Humboldt was also a student of the Enlightenment, and his interest in the Americas was that of a scientist as well. The Vues thus included not only geographical wonders but also ruins and indigenous artifacts, botanical and zoological materials and political essays. While images like this one did play down the considerable modernity of Spanish America, in its teeming, multi-ethic cities, and international economy, they also situated the Americas and her pre-Columbian creations within frameworks established in Europe for understanding human and natural history.
Duviols, Jean-Paul and Charles Minguet. 1994. Humboldt: savant-citoyen du monde. Paris: Gallimard.
Minguet, Charles 1985. Alejandro de Humboldt, historiador y geógrafo de la América Española (1799-1804). J. Padín Videla, trans. México, D.F.: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Pratt, Mary Louise. 1988. “Humboldt y la reinvención de América.” Nuevo texto crítico 1 (1): 35-53.
Quiñones Keber, Eloise. 1996. “Humboldt and Aztec Art.” Colonial Latin American Review (December) Vol. 5 (2).
El Regreso de Humboldt: exposición en el Museo de la Ciudad de Quito, junio-agosto del 2001. 2001. Quito.