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Beauty from the Precipice

VMFA exhibition places the Natural Bridge within a wider aesthetic context.

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Thomas Jefferson superstar. He shines in all media. We know him from biographies as a teenage carrot top studying at the College of William & Mary but finding time to dance and play the fiddle. In 1969 we see him on Broadway in “1776,” a musical set in Philadelphia as he sweats out the Declaration of Independence. By 1995 he’s in the movies as a widower, the United States ambassador to France and the lover of Sally Hemings and Maria Cosway. In “Jefferson in Paris,” a Merchant Ivory film, Nick Nolte plays the future president.

Currently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Jefferson has a different role. He is the greeter, at least his painted likeness is, in the 8-foot high, full-length portrait that’s the first object you see upon entering “Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge of Virginia.” The focus of this excellent exhibition is the choicest bling in Jefferson's real estate portfolio, the 215-foot-high natural bridge that crosses Cedar Creek in Rockbridge County. He purchased the natural wonder in 1774 from King George III as a part of a 150-acre acquisition. “It is worth a [voyage] across the Atlantic to see,” Jefferson wrote to an artist friend in 1791.

Artist Caleb Boyle painted the exhibitions’ image of Jefferson standing in the wilderness with the Natural Bridge in the near distance. Among Jefferson’s many accomplishments was being a naturalist and a promoter of the American landscape: here’s to the Louisiana Purchase. The organizers of the VMFA exhibition suggest that many artists’ fascination with Natural Bridge in the 19th century was triggered by the Jefferson connection. A gallery wall at the beginning of the exhibit is painted a bold shade of chrome yellow, the color of the dining room walls at Monticello. You can imagine Jefferson telling his guests to visit Natural Bridge while they are in Virginia.

Some 70 paintings, drawings, prints and photographs depicting Natural Bridge are on display. These were culled from private collections as well as from some of our nation’s leading museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Nelson- Atkins Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Chrysler Museum of Art. A number of works are holdings of the host museum itself with other loans coming from next door at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Most of the works share a similar, head-on vantage point looking up the creek at the natural arch. The bridge provides a bold visual form that poses the question: How was this thing formed? Natural Bridge was catnip to American and European artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As I moved through the exhibit, I considered how French impressionist Claude Monet had painted a haystack multiple times to catch the effect of changing lights of day or season. So in this exhibition it didn’t matter that other artists had captured this same natural wonder from similar angles. Each is distinctive. Many bold face artists are represented here: Edward Beyer, Frederick Edwin Church and Edward Hicks who places his iconic animals at the foot of the bridge (“The Peaceable Rockbridge County Kingdom”). Michael Miley, a prominent Lexington studio photographer, also focused his lens on the Natural Bridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The exhibition's organizer, Christopher C. Oliver, a curator of American art, places these often gorgeous realistic depictions of a storied Virginia place in chronological order. And he presents his narrative, also available in a well-illustrated 100-page catalog, within the broad Romantic and Picturesque themes of the 19th-century Hudson River School of art: Was North America a new Eden? In this movement, American artists’ goal was to capture, and sometimes idealize, the natural environment when it and indigenous peoples were being lost to industrialism.

One of the most compelling of many captivating works is a very small painting. "Natural Bridge #1: View from the Arch of the Bridge Looking down the Creek, Rockbridge County, Virginia," 1820 was painted by Joshua Shaw, an English-born American artist. A solitary figure, somberly attired in black, kneels on the ground at the top of the rail-less bridge and tentatively peers down. In the distance, as mountain ranges fade in hue from deep green to lavender the scene becomes sublime. We can sense the clash between the fear of falling and the sense of joy generated by the spectacular vista.

In the 19th century, as always, the theme of man versus nature was acutely felt. Now we feel the power of nature with every photo flashed from Mars or the latest update on the international pandemic. “Virginia Arcadia” reminds us that despite living on an always-changing precipice, humans will find beauty.

“Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art” continues through Aug. 1 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. No admission. The exhibition runs at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke from April 1- Aug. 7, 2022. Catalog available.