An American icon goes public


Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826–1900. The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852. The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, Gift of Thomas Fortune Ryan,

It’s very good news that the majestic rock formation known as Natural Bridge (near Lexington, Va.) will become a Virginia state park. Given its importance to American history, the fact that the land beneath it was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and the large part it plays in the iconography of the American sublime, I’ve always wanted to visit.

But every time I’ve been in the neighborhood, I’ve been turned off by the commercialism of its private ownership and the idea of paying an admission fee to visit something that feels as if it should be held in the public trust. Now it will be.

Jefferson wrote of the Natural Bridge in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” describing this “most sublime of Nature’s works” in typically Jeffersonian and scientific detail. But he also wrote of the emotional experience of visiting it:

…Few men have resolution to walk to [its edge] and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ach. If the view from the top be painful and intolerable, that from below is delightful in an equal extreme. It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven, the rapture of the spectator is really indescribable!

Frederic Church, as you can see from the above painting (in the collection of the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art), chose to depict people enjoying it from Jefferson’s preferred spot, below, on terra firma and without a headache.

 

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.

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Caitlin Dewey · February 7, 2014