The Humboldt brothers – The Spirit of Europe
Their intellectual contributions, ideas, voyages, aesthetic and scientific passions
Wilhelm (1767-1835) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) belonged to a generation that was 20 years old in 1789. Born and raised in Berlin, the cosmopolitan and polyglot brothers, true citizens of the world, travelled the globe from London, Rome, Paris and Vienna to North America, South America and Central Asia. They frequented some of the greatest minds of their time: Goethe, Mme de Staël, Mme Récamier, Chateaubriand, Arago, Gay-Lussac and Schiller.
The brothers epitomize the winds of change that blew over the old Europe in the late 18th century: unprecedented social and geographic mobility, a profoundly transformed intellectual framework and shared aspirations for a world of progress and freedom.
Their contribution to the social sciences, anthropology, geography, the study of Antiquity and linguistics is immense. Be it the formation of a modern German state, the development of Hellenistic studies and Philology, our modern conception of museums and universities or the development of a European scientific network ... none would have been possible without the groundwork laid by Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt.
This Virtual Exhibition follows on the exhibition held at the Observatoire de Paris in 2014.
Exhibition concept: Monique Canto-Sperber and Marc Fumaroli
Curators: Bénédicte Savoy and David Blankenstein.
A second physical version of the exhibition was shown at the Centre Sarrailh in 2015, thanks to a PSL /CROUS de Paris partnership.
Related events and resources
Exhibition at the CROUS de Paris
In 2014, Paris Sciences et Lettres produced its first exhibition, in close collaboration with researchers and prestigious institutions in France and in Germany. One year later, PSL and the CROUS de Paris joined forces to bring the exhibit to the heart of our academic community. At the Centre Sarrailh, students, faculty and staff could visit and revisit the exhibit, discover and draw inspiration from Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt and their extraordinary lives of travel, scientific discovery, innovation and accomplishment.
Dates: September 1st through December 18th 2015 Entry: Free of charge
Opening hours: Open to the public Monday tnrough Friday from 9:30 am to 4::30 pm.
Place: Centre Sarraih, 39 avenue Georges Bernanos, 75005 Paris
Catalogue of the exhibition
Les frères Humboldt. L'Europe de l'esprit, publisher: De Monza, 2014, 200 pages.
This catalogue accompanies the exhibition "Les frères Humboldt, L'Europe de l'Esprit" (The Humboldt brothers – The Spirit of Europe) produced by Paris Sciences & Lettres (PSL) and shown at the Observatoire de Paris from May 15th through June 30th 2014. The catalogue is divided into 5 sections, mirroring the exhibition's main themes: "Matrix: family background and contemporary interest in classical Antiquity", "Res Publica: Revolution. Regeneration", "Europe and the World: Otherness as an intellectual horizon", "Morphologies: of parts and the whole", and "Sharing knowledge". The catalogue is far more than a simple visual reminder of the exhibition (maps, objects, letters and publications), it is also a theoretical work comprising 10 essays written by eminent scholars.
Throughout the catalogue, insets by Laurence Bobis, Director of the Observatoire de Paris library, provide the reader with additional bibliographic, political and scientific information. The catalogue is designed for the general public, for visitors to the exhibition and for informed or academic readers. Its intention is to prolong the exhibition experience and emphasize the intellectual, philosophical and ethical values to which the Humboldt brothers devoted their lives. These brilliant polymath intellectuals, one focused on science, the other on the humanities, were driven by a deep and unwavering humanism and a shared vision for a unified Europe, founded on progress and knowledge.
The catalogue can be found on most on-line book platforms as well as at the l'Ecume des pages bookshop (174 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris).
About the exhibition
This virtual exhibition follows on the physical exhibition The Humboldt brothers – The Spirit of Europe held at the Observatoire de Paris from May 15th through July 11th 2014. A smaller physical version of the exhibition was shown in 2015 at the Centre Sarrailh, 39 avenue Georges Bernanos, thanks to a PSL /CROUS de Paris partnership.
The Humboldt brothers have become a symbol of the intellectual, philosophical and ethical values that bind France and the Germanic World despite their tumultuous political history: a fascination for classical Antiquity and a deep attachment to rationalism and universalism. The exhibition is a first for PSL - Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University, and the first French exhibition devoted solely to the Humboldt brothers. Our goal: to open a window onto the extraordinary intellectual effervescence of a era when anything was possible, by presentation the life and work of two stellar intellectuals, their insatiable curiosity for the world around them, their commitment to advancing and sharing knowledge and science, and their incredible talent for innovation.
The Humboldt brothers influenced generations of intellectuals and scholars the world over. PSL shares their fundamental belief in the unity of the Sciences and the Arts and the academic ideals they defended: a university founded on the principles of scientific excellence, where academics and research are intimately linked, and where all disciplines coexist without boundaries, from astrophysics to the visual and performing arts, from mathematics to the humanities.
Physical exhibition curated by
Bénédicte Savoy, Professor of Art history, Berlin
David Blankenstein, graduate in art history and museum studies
Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University (PSL), in partnership with Labex TransferS.
Under the chairmanship of Marc Fumaroli, member of the Académie française.
- Elisabeth Beyer - cultural attaché in charge of books at the French Embassy in Germany
- Laurence Bobis - Director of the Observatoire de Paris library
- Monique Canto-Sperber - (then) President, Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University
- Barbara Cassin - Director of Research, CNRS
- Michel Espagne - Director, Labex TransferS
- Ottmar Ette, Professor - University of Potsdam
- Christine von Heinz – owner of Tegel Castle and the castle archives
- Ulrich von Heinz - owner of Tegel Castle and the castle archives
- Eberhard Knobloch – Professor Emeritus, Technische Universität Berlin (Technical University of Berlin)
- Michelle Lenoir, Director of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle main library
- Central library - Henri Loyrette, Conseiller d'Etat, France
- Daniel Marchesseau, conservateur général honoraire du patrimoine (honorary Conservator General of Culture)
- Hermann Parzinger, President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian cultural Foundation)
- Jürgen Trabant, Professor Emeritus, Die Freie Universität Berlin (Free University Of Berlin)
Marc Fumaroli and Monique Canto-Sperber would like to thank:
The Honorables Susanne Wasum-Rainer, German Ambassador to France
Mr. Louis Gallois and Mr. Louis Schweitzer, Commissaires généraux à l'investissement (Frenchgovernment investment comissioners)
Mr. Claude Catala, President, the Observatoire de Paris
The founding members of the Paris-Sciences et Lettres Foundation, members of Labex TransferS and and its Director Michel Espagne
La République des Savoirs and its director Antoine Compagnon
As well as:
Emmanuel Suard and Hubert Guicharrousse (Berlin, French Embassy in GermanyAllemagne), Hinrich Sieveking (Munich, Winterstein collection ), Heinrich Schulze Altcappenberg (Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett SMB-PK), Isabelle le Masne de Chermont (Paris, BNF), Caroline Noyes and Gabriel Carlier (Paris, MNHN), Manfred Gräfe and Cornelia Gentzen (Berlin, Stiftung Stadtmuseum, Humboldt-Sammlung Hein and Hausarchiv), Hans-Dieter Nägelke and Claudia Zachariae (Berlin, Technische Universität, Architekturmuseum), Stéphanie Baumewerd, Annick Trellu and Philippa Sissis (Berlin, Technische Universität, Art History Institute), Elisabeth Michel (Berlin), Sandrine Maufroy (Paris, Université Paris 4-Sorbonne), Emilie Oléron Evans (London, Queen Mary, University of London), Marie-Ange Maillet (Paris, Université Paris 8-Saint-Denis), Vincent Platini (Berlin, Freie Universität), Leah Stearns (Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello).
Virtual exhibition production
Annael Le Poullennec and the team at the PSL Resource and Knowledge department
Dimitri Le Meur, ENS.
Robin Silver-Delouvrier (French to English)
Voice recordings (readings)
Thomas Claret, Alice Billon, Anne Buers
- Gottlieb Schick, Wilhelm von Humboldt, 1808, oil on canvas, 86 x 66 cm, © Berlin, Deutsches Historisches Museum
- Henry William Pickersgill, Alexander von Humboldt, 1831, oil on canvas, 142,2 x 109,2 cm © Bridgeman Art Library
- Johan Weitsch, Humboldt et Bonpland au pied du Chimborazo en Equateur (Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of mount Chimborozo...), 1806, oil on canvas, 163 x 226 cm © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Hermann Buresch
- Wilhelm von Humboldt, Anleitung zur Entwerfung einer allgemeinen Sprachkarte [Instructions for making a general map of spoken languages], annex to a letter from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Goethe dated November 15th 1812, ink on paper, © Weimar, Klassik Stiftung Weimar, Goethe und Schiller-Archiv