humboldt header
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.​

Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt

Wilhelm was born in Potsdam on June 22nd 1767 and Alexander two years later, in Berlin, on September 14th 1769, into an aristocratic Prussian family. Their father, Alexander Georg von Humboldt, Major General in the Prussian army, was Chamberlain to Friedrich II. Their mother, Marie-Elisabeth Colomb, was a Huguenot of French descent; her family had emigrated to Prussia in the 17th century.

Wilhelm and Alexander spent their childhood between Berlin and the family estate, Tegel Castle, ten kilometers north of the city. There they were tutored by some of the brightest intellectuals of the Berlin Enlightenment scene, preparing them to take their place as members of the Prussian intellectual elite.

Following their father's death in 1779, their mother, Marie-Elisabeth, carried on the brothers' ambitious and liberal education, in keeping with her husband's wishes.

Alexander Georg von Humboldt

"Alexander Georg von Humboldt"
Johann Heinrich Schmidt, 1775 
© Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin


Marie-Elisabeth von Humboldt

"Marie-Elisabeth von Humboldt"
Johann Heinrich Schmidt, 1775
© Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin


Wilhelm von Humboldt

"Wilhelm von Humboldt"
Johann Heinrich Schmidt, 1784
© Ursula Edelmann -Artothek


Alexander von Humboldt

"Alexander von Humboldt"
Johann Heinrich Schmidt, 1784
© Ursula Edelmann -Artothek

Alexander von Humboldt
Five geographic drawings
Main hall of the Göttingen university library
On underground gases and how to limit their harmful effects


The choice of tutors played a determining role in the Humboldt brothers' education. Wilhelm et Alexander first received tuition from Joachim Heinrich Campe, a follower of Rousseau and one of the first authors to publish books specifically for young people. Using works such as Robinson de Jüngere (The Young Robinson), Campe introduced the brothers to the subject of the New World and the tales of navigators, imbuing them with a fascination for exotic countries and cultures.

In 1777, Gottlob Johann Christian Kunth, a 20 year-old educator, became their principal tutor. He taught them mathematics, literature, German, Latin, Greek, French, history, and geography. He continued their tuition until they left for university in 1787 and maintained life-long ties to the Humboldt family. He is buried alongside the family at Tegel Castle.

Educated together in the spirit of classical humanism and the Enlightenment, the Humboldt brothers developed very different characters and centers of interest. Even as a child, Alexander, an extrovert, showed a marked interest for natural history, observing, describing and classifying plants, rocks and all sorts of natural phenomena. Wilhelm, on the other hand, was an introvert with a robust constitution and a facility for learning that destined him for the upper echelons of public service.

In late 1787, Wilhelm and Alexander began studying law at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, accompanied by their tutor Kunth. But it is at the University of Göttingen, where Wilhelm enrolled in the summer of 1788 followed by Alexander one year later, that the brothers truly began to develop their personal intellectual focuses and a shared appetite for encyclopedic knowledge. Together, they studied experimental physics, philology, archeology, history and economics. Alexander also developed a passion for Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's lectures on anatomy, comparative zoology and geology.

"I learned so much (there) that I began to feel better about myself; and at Göttingen, I was a very serious, hard-working student. But that only heightened my awareness of the fact that there was still so much to learn. […] At times, the feeling of constant restlessness that plagues me makes me believe that I am loosing my mind. Yet, I absolutely need that sense of agitation to work ceaselessly towards my goals."
Alexander writing to Wilhelm Gabriel Wegener,  September 23rd 1790

Freiberg Mining Academy

In 1791, Alexander enrolled at the Bergakademie Freiberg (Freiberg Mining Academy), famous throughout Europe for a curriculum combining theory and practice. At Freiberg, Alexander spent his mornings in the mine and his afternoons in the classroom. It took him a mere eight months to complete the standard three-year course of studies. Setting aside his desire to travel, Alexander began what was to be a stellar career as assessor for Prussia's Department of Mines and Ironworks. While working there, he pursued his research in physics and subterranean biology. Particularly concerned by working conditions in the mines, he invented two tools that would contribute to the miners' chances of survival in case of emergency: a miner's lamp that could function without oxygen and a breathing apparatus.

Caroline von Humboldt
Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe at  Schiller's home in Jena, 1796

Berlin Society

From 1785 on, the Humboldt brothers frequented the home and literary salon of Markus Herz, a physician and student of Kant, and his wife Henrietta. Through the Herz, Wilhelm and Alexander became members of the Berlin intelligentsia, a liberal and composite circle that unreservedly welcomed both men and women as well as intellectuals of all social backgrounds and all religions. It is in precisely this circle that Wilhelm was to meet his future wife Caroline. 

The major socio-cultural transformations that swept the Prussian capital in the 1780's provided the conditions for self-reflection and debate about the nature of the Enlightenment. Emmanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, the most respected German philosophers of their time, reflected on the nature and practices of Enlightenment and their influence on Human Destiny. Although neither of the Humboldt brothers knew the two philosophers personally, both cite them as having had a major influence on their own intellectual development.

"Civilization may be divided into cultivation (Bildung) and enlightening the public mind (Aufklärung), the former of which seems to be chiefly practical […] but on the other hand, enlightening seems to relate principally to theory or rational knowledge […]" 

Moses Mendelssohn, "On the Enlightening the mind" or "What does ‘to enlighten' mean?", 1784 (anonymous translation)

Weimar and Jena 

On June 29th 1791, Wilhelm von Humboldt married Caroline von Dacheröden in Erfurt. In 1794, the couple moved to Jena where Caroline introduced her husband to the Weimar and Jena intellectual circles. They met Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte and formed a lasting friendship with Friedrich Schiller, Goethe and the archeologist Friedrich August Wolf. Wilhelm von Humboldt participated actively in the Weimar and Jena philosophical and literary community's reflection, research and philosophical debates, with a special focus on defining a new aesthetics. He collaborated with Schiller and published two contributions on the subject in Schiller's journal Die Horen. Wilhelm's research on aesthetics had a profound influence on his views in general and his perspective on classical Antiquity in particular.

The Bastille prison in the days following its demolition
Landscape with Liberty Pole

The French Revolution

It was the explorer Georg Forster, encountered in Göttingen, who first introduced the Humboldt brothers to the politics of the French Revolution. Forster was Jacobin from the start; he founded the Republic of Mainz in 1792 after travelling the world with James Cook from 1772 to 1775. Known for his harsh criticism of despotism, he introduced Wilhelm to the ideas of the French Revolution.

Travelling to Paris for the first time with his tutor, Joachim Heinrich Campe, the 22 year-old Wilhelm arrived shortly after the storming of the Bastille. During the weeks spent in a French capital rife with revolutionary fervor, Wilhelm wrote the following observations:

As for Alexander, he visited Paris for the first time a year after his brother, in July 1790, following a trip with one and the same Georg Forster to Brabant and Flanders, both in the midst of revolt. In Paris, Alexander participated in preparations for the Fête de la Fédération (Feast of the Federation).

These trips to Paris were to shape the brothers' political and social ideas as well as their conception of the Nation and State.

Travels and expeditions
Garden of the Museum of French Monuments, ex-convent of the Petits-Augustins
Théâtre-Français, Mr. Talma in the role of Titus (in Brutus)

Modern thought

In late 1797, eight years after his first visit, Wilhelm decided to take up residence in Paris with his wife, Caroline, and their two children. Wilhelm quickly discovered the "modern thought" that prevailed in Parisian literary and cultural salons. He hoped to gain insight and inspiration for his theory of Bildung: he considered Paris to be the 'ideal city'. In Paris, Wilhelm found himself thrown into a whirlwind of ideas, lectures and encounters that fueled his intellect; he discovered the immense wealth of Parisian museums and observed the rise of Neoclassicism in the Paris Art Salons and theaters and their undisputed star, the actor François-Joseph Talma.

"My time here will be extremely beneficial. Nowhere else in the world is modern thought as at home as it is here, particularly when most extreme and extravagant. France has set the course for thinking at the end of our century."
Wilhelm von Humboldt writing to Friedrich Gentz, 1797

France left a deep mark on Wilhelm and was to play an essential role in his life. The impact of his Parisian experience reached far beyond simple cultural discoveries or an educated understanding of literature. Paris' prestigious scientific community and institutions, its commercial ventures, its Press, researchers and major urban development projects all significantly influenced Wilhelm von Humboldt. 


Humboldt and Bonpland at the foot of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador
Rainforest in Brazil
Binocular theodolite scope
Night scene with Alexander von Humboldt on the shores of the Orinoco
Botanical log (notebook)
Imprints of plants from the expedition. Guercus mexicana.

Preparing for the voyage

On their mother's death in 1796, the Humboldt brothers came into a considerable inheritance. Alexander chose to abandon his career as a civil servant and devote himself to his own projects, in particular an expedition outside of Europe. Paris seemed to be the perfect place from which to launch the expedition, so he joined Wilhelm there in 1798.

"I have made the irrevocable decision to embark on this journey. I shall avail myself of the next few years to prepare for the voyage and assemble all necessary instruments. I shall spend one or one-and-one-half years in Italy to study the volcanoes. I shall then travel to England stopping first in Paris. Then it's off to the West Indies."
Alexander von Humboldt, 1797

During his stay in Paris, Alexander encountered Aimé Bonpland, a young French physician and naturalist with whom he shared a passion for botany and exploration. Alexander invited Bonpland to accompany him on an expedition to what he referred to as the Equinoctial Regions of America. Aimé Bonpland became his assistant and loyal companion for an expedition that was to last five years.

humboldt silhouettes







Silhouette of Alexander von Humboldt
Charles Wilson Peale, 1804
© Monticello, Thomas
Jefferson Memorial Foundation
Silhouette of Aimé Bonpland
Charles Wilson Peale, 1804
© Washington D.C.,
Library of Congress

Alexander von Humboldt believed in the importance of observation and measurement. In his scientific expeditions, Alexander collected, located, measured, and described countless specimens and natural phenomena. Before leaving for the New Continent, he assembled a vast array of scientific instruments and equipment, amongst which: instruments to determine one's precise geographic and physical location (sextants, chronometers and barometers) as well as instruments to measure physical phenomena such as air and water temperature, magnetic declination and intensity, the composition of air and even the different shades of blue observed in the sky. The instruments, most of which would not make it back to Europe, constituted a veritable travelling laboratory that accompanied Humboldt and Bonpland from Cumaná (in today's Venezuela) to Mexico via the great Orinoco River and the Andes Cordillera. 

Setting off for America

Actually setting off for the New World was not an easy matter. When Nicolas Baudin's expedition to the Southern Hemisphere (which they had been invited to join) was postponed due to war, the duo unsuccessfully attempted to reach Egypt where Napoleon Bonaparte's scholars were carrying out the most ambitious scientific expedition of their time. In the end, they were able to sail from Spain, after receiving official protection and authorization from King Charles IV to travel freely throughout Spain's overseas dominions for the purpose of collecting mineral and botanical specimens. So, on June 5th 1799, the two explorers finally set sail on the Pizarro, first for Tenerife and then on to Cumaná in New Granada.

"We are running around like madmen; for the first three days, we were incapable of making a decision so busy were we discarding one thing just to pick up another. Bonpland is certain that he will loose his mind if all of these miracles do not cease soon. […]  I believe that I will be happy here and that these impressions will remain with me in the future."
Alexander writing to Wilhelm von Humboldt, July 16th 1799 (Cumaná)

For five years, Alexander and Aimé collected a wealth of animal and plant specimens in the Amazon, explored Cuba's tropical forest and crossed the Andes. Alexander climbed the Chimborazo volcano, considered at the time to be the world's highest summit.  In 1803, they left South America for Mexico and continued on to the United States where they meet President Thomas Jefferson.

In June 1804, considering that their expedition was complete, they sailed for France carrying with them over 60,000 specimens: plants, minerals, soil samples, taxidermy animals and insects, archeological artifacts, original maps and notebook upon notebook of observations.

Cantabrica, notes on a trip to Spain
View of Rome
Rome, poème de Mr. Guillaume de Humboldt

Basque Country

Shortly after his brother's departure for America, Wilhelm von Humboldt discovered another practically uncharted land in terms of culture and linguistics: the Basque Country.

Wilhelm visited Spain for the first time from August 1799 to April 1900, in the company of his wife and children. After traveling to Andalusia and Madrid, Wilhelm was struck by the mountainous landscapes of the Basque Country. Fascinated by the mysteries of Basque, a language that shares no roots with any other European language, Wilhelm decided to return to Spain on his own in the Spring of 1801, for a stay devoted entirely to studying the language. It was this trip that inspired Wilhelm's vocation as a linguist.

Ambassador to Rome

Appointed Prussian Ambassador to the Holy See in Rome in 1802, Wilhelm proved less interested in politics than he was in the Eternal City's cultural heritage. He took advantage of his time in Rome to further his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history and culture.








Bas-relief sculpture of Eurus
Studio of Christian Daniel Rauch, 1822
© Berlin, private collection


While in Rome, Wilhelm and his wife assembled a collection of antiquities and invited German and European artists to their home, not far from the Spanish Steps. They helped launch the careers of such painters and sculptors as Gottlieb Schick and Christian Daniel Rauch. Before returning to Berlin in 1808, Wilhelm published an elegy of the Eternal City:  

Self-portrait of Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt's Writing Set
Notes by Alexander von Humboldt found on his desk after his death
Portrait of François Arago

Back from America

Alexander landed at Bordeaux on August 3rd 1804, to a hero's welcome. Immediately upon arriving in Paris, he devoted himself to the task of reviewing, analyzing and supplementing the observations and data collected during his five-year expedition. Working with the resources of Paris' comprehensive libraries and specialized institutions, Alexander was able to complete his observations and write a brilliant and precise account of the expedition.

In Paris, he joined numerous scholarly societies and presented the results of his expedition before the members of the Institut de France a full 7 times. Alexander also took advantage of Paris' vibrant intellectual network and often collaborated with fellow scholars such as Berthollet, Laplace, Gay Lussac, Chaptal, Monge and Cuvier. His skill for deductive reasoning, his talent as an orator and his capacity to mix observation (empirical data) with the narrative of his explorations made him one of the most highly regarded and sought-after representatives of the Parisian intelligentsia.

Networks and friendships

During his years in Paris, Alexander also frequented the intellectual Salons of such Grandes Dames as Madame de Staël and Madame de Duras. Claire de Duras, wife of the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber and official hostess of the most influential Parisian political and literary salon from 1816 to 1826, became one of Alexander's closest friends. They corresponded regularly throughout their lives. It is probably at her home that Alexander met and became close friends with the French writer Chateaubriand. Alexander was able to count on the proofreading talents of Madame de Duras and even Chateaubriand who did him the honor of correcting his rare stylistic errors.

It is also in Paris that Alexander developed a deep friendship with the French scholar François Arago - a relationship that would last for forty-four years. Their correspondence illustrates the scope and diversity of their shared scientific interests: astronomy, physics, scientific instrumentation, geography and geophysics, geology and chemistry. They also exchanged travel narratives and news of their everyday lives. The Observatoire de Paris symbolizes that friendship; there you can still see Alexander's desk and writing set and Arago's blackboard, an echo of that now distant friendship between these two exceptional scholars.




von Humboldt's desk

© Sylvain Pelly / Observatoire de Paris

It was with profound regret that Alexander left Paris in 1826 for Berlin, after having lived in the capital for over 20 years. Nonetheless, he maintained close ties to Parisian society and continued to visit regularly.

image interactive

Revolution. Regeneration
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Essay on the Limits of State Action (French edition)

Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt were both instrumental in shaping Europe's political future. Following the French Revolution and the advent of the Napoleonic Empire, members of the young European elite began reflecting on the future of nations and state within Europe; they believed it their duty to actively engage through writing, public speaking and political action. The Humboldt brothers were part of that movement.

Essay on the Limits of State Action

Although Wilhelm was fascinated by what he witnessed of the French Revolution in Paris, he was also ill at ease with the excesses that accompanied the political upheaval. He questioned the legitimacy of a State founded solely on the principles of abstract reason, devoid of a sense of history, one that neglects the human individual's social and cultural development . His reflections culminated in an important theoretical essay on the notion of the State, with a focus on the concepts of Bildung (education, or rather, self cultivation) and individuality.

"To what end ought the whole apparatus of the state to aim, and what limits ought to be set to its activity?" […] The tiny seed, for example, which drops into the awaiting soil, unseen and unheeded, brings forth a far richer and more genial blessing in its growth and germination than the violent eruption of a volcano, which, however necessary, is always attended with destruction …"
Wilhelm von Humboldt, Essay on the limits of State Action, 1792

Wilhelm wrote his Essay on the Limits of State Action in 1792, at age 25, in the midst of the French Revolution. In it, he advocates a liberal approach to the role of the State in society. According to Wilhelm, the State should confine its action to protecting its citizens within its frontiers and from attacks from the outside. Wilhelm also believed that the State should not intervene in matters of education but rather leave each individual free to learn, to teach and to develop fully outside the aegis of the State. Fifteen years later, the yet unpublished text would form the foundation for the liberal reforms that Wilhelm von Humboldt was to implement in his capacity as Minister of the Prussian State.

Alexander von Humboldt in the King of Prussia's antechamber, post 1844
Letter from Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia to Alexander von Humboldt

Advisor to the King of Prussia

Alexander von Humboldt refused all official functions, and yet, he found himself heavily involved in the affairs of the Prussian court. In 1805, shortly after returning to Europe, King Friedrich Wilhelm III appointed Alexander to the position of Royal Chamberlain, giving him much-needed financial support following the American expedition that had cost him a third of his inheritance.

Following the Battle of Austerlitz, Franco-Prussian relations became increasingly strained. Alexander, perfectly familiar with the French political scene, was called upon to carry out 1,807 diplomatic missions in Paris, where he was to spend the next 25 years. 

A letter from Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm illustrates the extent to which the Prussian crown solicited Alexander to intervene with French authorities on its behalf. A born mediator, exceptionally cosmopolitan, Alexander von Humboldt was often criticized: the Prussians claimed he defended French interests while the French accused him of being a Prussian spy.

Although the diplomatic reports he filed with Berlin in the 1830's indicate his appreciation for King Louis-Philippe's liberal regime, he remained steadfastly loyal to the Prussian Crown throughout his life.

The Congress of Vienna
Baron von Humboldt, Official costume for the Congress of Vienna

Building a new Europe

The Congress of Vienna, held from September 1814 to June 1815, was the first in a series of international meetings designed to redefine the contours of Europe and forge a peaceful balance of power following the Napoleonic wars and Napoleon I's defeat. It was a founding moment in European diplomatic history. 

By appointment of the King, Wilhelm von Humboldt accompanied Karl August von Hardenberg, the head of the Prussian delegation, to the Congress of Vienna, to negotiate territorial dispositions concerning Prussia and the creation of a German Confederation.

Prior to the Congress, Wilhelm developed a framework for addressing European issues that would prove crucial to maintaining a political balance between the major powers. He also created a diplomatic language that would make the Congress of Vienna a model for the multilateral negotiations held at the end of WWI and WWII.

Although his mission focused primarily on issues of territory and national boundaries, Wilhelm von Humboldt also exerted an influence over the Congress' other advances such as the abolition of the slave trade, free navigation, the restitution of art and artifacts stolen by Napoleon from Italy, Germany and other countries during his military campaigns, the foundation of a new German confederation or the rights of German Jews.

In preparation for the Congress , Wilhelm wrote (in French) a text entitled Le Projet pour les régulations du congrès (Proposal of Rules for the Congress), in which he anticipates the concept of a European community:

Sharing knowledge
On different teeth of the genus mastodon...
Mount Chimborazo, viewed from the Tapia plateau

The emerging Spirit of Europe was fueled by an intellectual effervescence and knowledge-sharing that had little or no regard for national boundaries. Thinkers, objects, books and ideas moved freely between countries inspiring innovative projects, a phenomenon attested to by the Humboldts' ambitious undertakings. And it was by nourishing their international networks and generously sharing the fruit of their work that the Humboldt brothers were able to accomplish their great universal project: contribute to a better understanding of both Nature and Humankind.

A monumental editorial undertaking

Once back in Europe, Alexander devoted much of his time to publishing the narrative of his American Expedition. It took him close to thirty years to complete the 30-volume Voyage aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, fait en 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803 et 1804 (Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, during the years 1799-1804).

In 1810, Alexander began publishing his Vues des Cordillères et monumens des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique (Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas), a work at the crossroads of science and literature. The engravings, based primarily on Alexander's original sketches, are both precise scientific illustrations and works of art in their own right. They are the fruit of a Europe-wide collaboration between Italian, German and French artists. As for the text, it comprises both Alexander's American field observations and the comments and opinions of the numerous scholars with whom he exchanged following his return, including Ennio Quirino Visconti, the most eminent European archeologist of his time, to whom the work is dedicated.

Humboldt and Bonpland's 30-volume Voyage aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, was one of the most ambitious publishing projects of the time, comparable to the 23-volume Description de l'Egypte (Description of Egypt) published between 1809 and 1829 by order of Emperor Napoleon le Grand.

Title page from "Essai sur la géographie des plantes", with revision marks
Geography of Equinoctial Plants: Map of the Andes and neighboring countries
Dedication to Goethe in Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen
Drawing of the main mountains of the two continents, inspired by one of Goethe's drawings after a work published by Humboldt in 1807
Instructions for making a general map of spoken languages

The Humboldt brothers first met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most prominent German intellectuals of their time, in Weimar where Wilhelm lived from 1794-1797; and the three developed lasting ties. Goethe and Wilhelm shared a fascination for classical Antiquity and an interest in philology and linguistics. With Alexander, Goethe shared a passion for mineralogy and botany. The three Berlin scholars' shared interests and mutual esteem resulted in two distinct projects that, while they focused on very different topics, both sought to represent the world using practical tools.

Map of the Equinoctial Regions

In 1807, Alexander dedicated one of his first books, Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen (Essay on the Geography of Plants), to Goethe. Alexander sent Goethe a preliminary print in German, promising to send him the missing table at a later date. Instead of waiting for the missing document, Goethe decided to construct his own map based on the data contained in the book. His illustration, a colorful composite landscape, compares the mountains of the Old and New World. Goethe's map was so widely reproduced and distributed all over Europe that it is better known than Alexander's original.

The languages of Europe

In 1810, Goethe suggested to Wilhelm that he create an illustrated map of the world's spoken languages. As Wilhelm was a less talented mapmaker than his brother, he chose to describe the ideal map rather than draw it himself. He sent 39 pages of detailed instructions to Goethe, who immediately began transposing them into a map. Unfortunately, Goethe's drawing has been lost to posterity. For the Humboldt Brothers Exhibition produced by PSL in 2014, a Franco-German team decided to complete the work begun two centuries ago and transcribe Wilhelm's instructions into a General Map of the Languages Spoken in Europe.

Map of the Languages of Europe drawn following Wilhelm von Humboldt's instructions
© Julien Cavero, Paris, 2014, LabEx TransferS/PSL, scientific assistance: Sandrine Maufroy and David Blankenstein

"Geographical maps with a view to the sensuous representations of the distribution of languages over the world, were, with the participation of Wilhelm von Humboldt, elaborated, defined and coloured. In the same way I was induced by Alexander von Humboldt to draw a comparative landscape picture of the mountain masses of the old and new world.

It will now be opportune briefly to express how I endeavoured to earn the happiness of living in intimate communication with the most distinguished men of my time.

From the stand-point where God and nature had been pleased to place me, and where, next, I did not neglect to exert my faculties according to circumstances, I looked all about me to mark where great tendencies were in operation and lastingly prevailed. I, for my part, by study, by performances of my own, by collections and experiments, endeavoured to reach forth towards those tendencies, and faithfully toiling upwards to the level of the achievements I could not myself have accomplished; in all simplicity, innocent of all feeling of rivalry or envy, with perfectly fresh and vital sense I presumed to appropriate to myself what was offered to the century by its best minds. My way, therefore, ran parallel with very many beautiful undertakings till it would next turn towards others. The new accordingly was never foreign to me, nor was I ever in danger either of adopting it in a state of unpreparedness, or by reason of old-fashioned prejudice, rejecting it."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Memoirs, 1813 (Eng. translation : G. Bell & sons, 1884)

Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier [Research on the language and philosophy of India]
Transcription and notes "Manusmriti"(The Laws of Manu)
Hieroglyphic groups
Humboldt Codex, fragment 1

India, the cradle of Europe

The study of ancient non-European civilizations deeply influenced Europe's perception of its own history and identity. In France, Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign inspired wild public enthusiasm (Egyptomania) for the Reign of the Pharaohs, while in Germany, Friedrich von Schlegel and Franz Bopp's pioneering work in linguistics, positing that numerous European languages originated in India, caught the public eye.

Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier (Research on the Language and Philosophy of India), published in 1808, is one of the most significant works of the period. Schlegel, using his observations of Sanskrit and Amerindian languages, postulated that the study of linguistics must be based on comparative grammar rather than on lexicographic comparisons. This new approach to the discipline led to the development of comparative grammar and modern-day comparative linguistics.

The Humboldt brothers, as long-time students of non-European civilizations, inspired and encouraged their fellow scholars to pursue innovations in linguistics and supported numerous research projects in the field.

Egyptian hieroglyphs

Jean-François Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta stone hieroglyphs was a pivotal moment in our understanding of Ancient Egypt. Wilhelm von Humboldt met Champollion through his brother Alexander, and the two began a correspondence that lasted from June 1824 to July 1827. From Champollion, Wilhelm learned that the Egyptian hieroglyphic system contained both ideograms (figurative representations) and phonograms (phonetic representations) similar to European alphabets.

Humboldt used Champollion's deciphering system to translate inscriptions found on the statues of the Goddess Sekhmet; and on March 24th, 1825, presented a communication on Egyptology, Über vier Äegyptische löwenköpfige Bildsäulen in den hiesigen Königlichen Atnikensammlungen (On four Egyptian sculptures with lion's heads from the royal collection of antiquities of Berlin) to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Thanks to their correspondence, Wilhelm was able to convince the heretofore-skeptical German scientific community to accept Champollion's deciphering system.  Champollion, in turn, provided Wilhelm with the information required to support and develop his theory of linguistics.








Seated figure of the Goddess Sekhmet., 1388-1351 BCE © BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jürgen Liepe
Inscriptions found on the statues of Sekhmet., 1828 © Private collection

Amerindian hieroglyphs

Alexander von Humboldt was also interested in hieroglyphs, but devoted his efforts to studying those found in the Americas. In his Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, he presents the Mexican codices he brought back from his travels and others he uncovered in the libraries of Paris, London, Rome and Dresden.

To Alexander, the significance of these "monuments" goes far beyond their aesthetic value; he believes that they play an integral part in his description of Man and Nature because they each translate a specific worldview and a unique perspective on observed Nature. Alexander focused on analyzing Aztec maps, calendars and numeral systems in order to better understand the relations between the region's various ancient population groups and also to uncover possible universal principals linking the different systems.

On the origin of grammatical forms and their influence on the development of thought
Letter to Mr. Abel-Rémusat on the nature of grammatical forms in general and on the genius of the Chinese language in particular
Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java

Language and worldview

On December 31st 1819, Wilhelm resigned his last official position and retired to his Tegel estate. From thereon, he devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, with a particular focus on his research on language and languages. Wilhelm built one of the most extensive collections of non-European linguistic materials in Europe: lexical lists, texts, grammars … thanks to his own field work in Spain, France Rome, England and Germany and to the data collected in the Americas by his brother Alexander. His research also benefited from the productive exchanges he developed and maintained with other specialists such as the French sinologist Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, John Crawfurd in England or John Pickering in the United States.

According to Humboldt's theory, "Language is the formative organ of thought." Moreover, he believed that language is not only a means of communication but also a precondition for the possibility of cognition. It follows that each language, as a product of thought, engenders a specific "worldview". For Humboldt, each language has its own specific linguistic structure, its own identity and that structure itself produces an equally specific worldview.

Wilhelm also argued for the necessity of developing comparative linguistics. In June 1820, Wilhelm von Humboldt addressed the Berlin Academy for the first time. Amongst other topics, he outlined a plan for the creation of a gigantic analytic system to compare all world languages; a project he had already formulated in Paris twenty years earlier. 

"The study of world languages is intimately tied to the history of Human thought and sentiments. By studying them, one can describe Mankind in all areas and at all stages of cultural development. We must neglect no detail; because everything that concerns Humankind is of equal importance."
Wilhelm von Humboldt, Fragments from a monograph of the Basques, 1801

The Kawi language of Indonesia

Wilhelm von Humboldt passed away at Tegel Castle in 1835, leaving the book summarizing his groundbreaking linguistics project unpublished. His last and most remarkable work was a comprehensive study in three volumes: Über die Kawi sprache aufder Insel Java (On the Kawi language of the isle of Java).  One year after his death, his brother Alexander published the work posthumously. It embodies a lifetime of research, thought and theory on linguistics and anthropology. In his introduction, Wilhelm outlines his general observations on the language and explains the empirical methodology he used to study both the grammatical structure and the literature of Kawi and other Austronesian languages.

Wilhelm von Humboldt is undoubtedly the most important Philosopher of Language of his time and one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics. Unfortunately, his theories were not always well received in the 19th century. 20th century linguistics scholars however, have rediscovered and reconsidered his work, either via the cultural theory of linguistics (Vossler) or structural linguistics (Saussure, Benveniste, Bloomfield, Whorf, Chomsky). He has been an inspiration to all philosophers of language with the exception of those that hail from the Anglo-Saxon school of analytic philosophy.

Wilhelm von Humboldt at his desk, Tegel Castle
Research on the primitive inhabitants of Spain using the Basque language
A German's thoughts on the art of  French tragedians

Early 19th century intellectuals focused considerable energy on questions regarding the origins of Man and the diversity of Mankind. The Humboldt brothers were no exception; they however, took what we would now call a cross disciplinary approach to the subject, mixing anthropology, philosophy and politics. By studying the cultures, civilizations and languages of ancient and modern peoples, the Humboldt brothers were able to use the past to analyze and understand the present.

Classical Antiquity

The art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome remained a major source of inspiration in early 19th century Europe. Wilhelm von Humboldt was particularly influenced by the example of ancient Greece. While posted to Rome (1803-1808), Wilhelm planned to write a study of Demosthenes and other Ancient Greek orators. In reality, he was far less interested in the literary and linguistic qualities of Demosthenes' discourses than he was fascinated by classical cultural and political history. In a letter to Jean Geoffroy Schweighaeuser dated November 4th 1807, Wilhelm announced his intention to write a history of the decline and fall of the Greek Republics:

His goal was to uncover the essence of ancient Greek thought (that he did not hesitate to compare to contemporary German thought) and understand the character of the ancient Greek nation. Encouraged by his work on ancient Greece and later on ancient Rome, Wilhelm went on to study other nations.

The French character

Wilhelm began developing the concept of comparative anthropology around 1800, while living in Paris. His initial research was devoted to European cultures; he studied the French, the Germans and the Basques. Wilhelm's Paris notebooks illustrate his meticulous observation of the "national character of the French".

Although his research on comparative physiognomy was a failure, his research in the areas of culture and aesthetics was more productive. For example, he published an important study on French theater. The concept of character - of an individual, a language, a nation, an era – became a leitmotiv in Wilhelm von Humboldt's thought and work.

Fundament and legacy
Detail from a view of Berlin from the roof of the Friedrichswerder Church
Berlin. University (today: Humboldt-Universität)
Berlin scholars

Nineteenth century European cultural history is marked by the emergence of new centers for cultural exchange and innovation. Within a few decades, under the driving influence of the Humboldt brothers, Berlin acquired an internationally renowned university and two public museums.

University of Berlin

Beginning in 1807, Friedrich Wilhelm III launched a program of radical reform designed to modernize Prussia. Appointed Director of Ecclesiastical Affaires and Education at the Prussian Ministry of the Interior on February 28th 1809, Wilhelm was responsible for radically reforming the Prussian educational system. 

Humboldt's based his approach to educational reform on Plato's writings, his own theories on the State as well as the ideas of fellow educational reformers such as the Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.  

He drew up plans for a free and universal system of general education (Allgemeine Bildung) for all citizens. The system was divided into three stages: Elementary (providing Basic Education or Fundament), Secondary and University. Curriculum at the newly created secondary schools, or Gymnasien, was organized around the study of classical languages (ancient Greek and Latin) with an emphasis on the Humanities. Henceforth, the role of secondary schools was to prepare pupils for University studies.

When it opened its doors in 1810, the University of Berlin, founded by Humboldt, was the most modern university of its day. In keeping with his deeply liberal beliefs, Wilhelm von Humboldt created a university model based on the principals of freedom in the elaboration of scientific knowledge (research) and the autonomy of instruction, where teaching and research came together in a single institution. In contrast to other universities, often reduced to dispensing what one could qualify as occupational training, Humboldt's university was to be an institution of general education whose mission was to train free-spirited minds and to promote pure, disinterested research. The University of Berlin, run by a largely autonomous administration, engaged an impressive list of faculty including Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (who influenced Humboldt's concept of university) as well as August Böckh, Albrecht Daniel Thaer and Carl Ritter.

The University of Berlin, renamed Humboldt University in 1949, rapidly became one of Germany's foremost universities. Humboldt's model has withstood the test of time and has significantly influenced university education across the globe.


Façade of the Berlin Singakademie (Choral Academy) where Alexander von Humboldt delivered some of his Kosmos lectures
Title page Volume I of Kosmos
Manuscript of Kosmos

Back to Berlin

It is only in 1827 at 57 years of age, that Alexander von Humboldt returned to settle in his native Berlin. With the University of Berlin, founded in 1809 on his brother Wilhelm's initiative, the Prussian capital had become a center for serious, forward-looking scientific research. Alexander, with his strong Europe-wide scholarly and scientific network and his international reputation, contributed significantly to developing Berlin's intellectual life.

In 1828, Alexander presided over the Berlin meeting of the Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, an recently founded association of naturalists and physicians, attended by 458 German and European scholars. But it was his Cosmos lectures that marked a generation of German intellectuals and artists. Cosmos began as a lecture series on Science and Nature at the University of Berlin in the winter of 1827-28. It turned into a 25-year-long endeavor culminating in a 5-volume treatise published between 1845 and 1862.

The Cosmos

Alexander von Humboldt began writing his "Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe", an essay on contemplating and understanding the physical world, around 1820 while living in Paris. But it was only in 1845, when he was close to 80, that he finally published the first volume of Cosmos.

Cosmos is a monumental compendium of empirical knowledge of the physical universe in which Alexander uses both his own observations and the most recent scientific advances of his fellow scholars around the world. It is not an encyclopedia but rather a treatise through which Alexander brings the different fields of scientific knowledge of his time together in one encompassing system to demonstrate both the "unity of Science" and the "unity of Nature". The treatise begins by painting a portrait of Nature from the 'cosmos' to the earth and continues with a history of Science and Art, an intellectual history of man's perception of Nature; and concludes with detailed accounts of scientific studies in all of the physical sciences.

The fifth volume of Cosmos was published following Alexander's death. Despite the skepticism of some contemporaries, who believed it vain to attempt assembling all knowledge in a single treatise, the work was a huge success in Germany, where the first edition of Volume I sold out in a mere 8 weeks. By 1851, an estimated 80,000 copies had been printed and shipped. Translated into French, English, Dutch, Italian and Spanish by 1846, the book became an international phenomenon, a perfect example of the newfound importance of Science to 19th century society.

The Rotunda of the Altes Museum
The Neues on Museum Island, Berlin
Le Neues Museum
The Neues Museum: Perspective view of the courtyard of the Egyptian Department

Public museums

In contrast to other German-speaking capitals such as Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Düsseldorf and Kassel, there were no public museums in late 18th century Berlin. So Wilhelm and Alexander Humboldt were introduced to the concept and very existence of these institutions as young men travelling through Europe. Each was able to appreciate the museums, their charm and sanctity, merit and purpose from his own intellectual perspective.

Wilhelm and the Altes Museum

Wilhelm von Humboldt was closely involved in creating Berlin's first public museum. In 1829, the King of Prussia appointed him head of the Museum Selection Committee, in charge of choosing the works to be presented and determining how they were to be exhibited. Working with the Architect Karl Schinkel, Wilhelm designed the Altes Museum, Prussia's first public museum.

The Altes Museum was intended for the students of the Academy of Painting, art history students of Berlin University and more broadly to serve the entire Berlin community. It embodied the concept of Bildung, self-cultivation through art. When it opened its doors on August 30th 1830, the museum presented primarily classical Greek and Roman sculpture and masterpieces of the great Italian, Dutch and German Masters. Though a latecomer to the European museum world, the Altes Museum was to play a central role in making Berlin a European cultural center.

Alexander and the Neues Museum

While Wilhelm von Humboldt was behind the creation of Berlin's first public museum, Alexander was instrumental in founding Berlin's second museum, the Neues Museum. Built as an extension to the Altes Museum, to which it was connected by a suspended walkway, the building was to house collections focusing on world culture. It was an ambitious, universal project conceived to give the institution a seat in the concert of European museums.

The Neues Museum housed the King of Prussia's Egyptian collections, ethnographic objects, classical monuments uncovered during regional digs, a collection of castings of classical artifacts and the prints and drawings collection.

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.

Click here to download the press kit [1502.0Ko]


Physical exhibition curated by

Bénédicte Savoy, Professor of Art history, Berlin
David Blankenstein, graduate in art history and museum studies

Produced by

Paris Sciences et Lettres Research University (PSL), in partnership with Labex TransferS.

Scientific Committee

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).

Project coordinators

Hélène Chaudoreille
Véronique Prouvost


Virtual exhibition production

Nathalie Figueroa

Assisted by

Annael Le Poullennec et l'équipe du Pôle Ressources et Savoirs, PSL.

Dimitri Le Meur, ENS.


Robin Silver-Delouvrier (French to English)


Voice recordings (readings)

Thomas Claret, Alice Billon, Anne Buers


Image credits 

  • 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
Related events and resources

affiche_humboldt_webExhibition 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).