Thomas Jefferson Superstar. He shines in all media. We know him from biographies as a teenage carrot top student at the College of William & Mary but finding time to dance and play the violin. In 1969, we see him on Broadway in “1776”, a musical in Philadelphia as he sweats the Declaration of Independence. In 1995, he was in the movies as a widower, US Ambassador to France and in love with Sally Hemings and Maria Cosway. In “Jefferson in Paris”, a film by Merchant Ivory, Nick Nolte plays the future president.
Currently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Jefferson has a different role. He is the host, at least his painted likeness is, in the 8-foot-tall full-length portrait which is the first object you see upon entering “Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge of Virginia”. The focus of this excellent exhibit is the best bling of 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 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 picture of Jefferson’s exhibits standing in nature with the Natural Bridge nearby. Among Jefferson’s many accomplishments was being a naturalist and promoter of the American landscape: here’s the Louisiana Purchase. The organizers of the VMFA exhibit suggest that many artists’ fascination with Natural Bridge in the 19th century was sparked by the Jefferson connection. A gallery wall at the start of the exhibition is painted in a bold shade of chrome yellow, the color of the walls in Monticello’s dining room. 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 come from private collections as well as some of our country’s major 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 held by the host museum itself with other loans coming from next door to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
Most of the works share a similar frontal point of view looking down the stream towards the natural arch. The bridge offers a bold visual form that begs the question: how did this thing come into being? Natural Bridge was a catnip for American and European artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As I browsed the exhibition, I considered how French impressionist Claude Monet painted a haystack several times to capture the effect of the changing lights of the day or season. So, in this exhibition, it didn’t matter that other artists captured this same natural wonder from similar angles. Each is distinctive. Many daring 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 studio photographer from Lexington, also focused his lens on the Natural Bridge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The exhibition’s organizer, Christopher C. Oliver, an American art curator, places these often beautiful realistic depictions of a historic place in Virginia in chronological order. And he presents his tale, also available in a well-illustrated 100-page catalog, in the great romantic and picturesque themes of the 19th-century Hudson River School of art: Was North America a New Eden? In this movement, the goal of American artists was to capture, and sometimes idealize, the natural environment when it and Indigenous peoples were lost to industrialization.
One of the most fascinating of the 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 American artist of English descent. A lonely figure, darkly clad in black, kneels on the ground atop the railless bridge and looks timidly down. In the distance, as the mountain ranges change from deep green to lavender, the scene becomes sublime. We feel the shock between the fear of falling and the feeling of joy generated by the spectacular sight.
In the 19th century, as always, the theme of man against nature was strongly felt. Now we are feeling the power of nature with every flashed photo of Mars or the latest update on the international pandemic. “Virginia Arcadia” reminds us that although they live on an ever-changing precipice, humans will find beauty.
“Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art” runs through August 1 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. No admission. The exhibition is presented at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke from April 1 to August 7, 2022. Catalog available.