A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, my partner and I decided to take a vacation. The parameters were strict: The location had to be accessible by car, close enough that a picnic lunch and dinner would get us through the day, and sufficiently rural that we wouldn’t be too dependent on the blessings of indoor plumbing. Given all that, Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County, Va., at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley, moved up my bucket list a few dozen slots. ¶ The nearly 90-foot-long limestone span was known in the annals of early America as the second-most-dramatic bit of scenery after Niagara Falls, and it became a popular tourist destination in the 19th century. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson, Natural Bridge became a popular subject for artists, including the great Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church, and it was referenced in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” And for us, it was only two picnics and one pit stop away.

Many other people seemed to have made the same calculation. The day we visited, the stairs leading down to Cedar Creek, which flows under the 215-foot-high natural arch, were jammed with tourists, many of them not wearing masks, huffing and puffing presumably infection in all directions. What to do? The great bridge was living up to its reputation as a quintessential symbol of the United States, malleable to all the twists and turns in American character, including some of the ugly ones. We decided to accept the culturally resonant but epidemiologically fraught risk, and made the short hike to the arch, which is probably a relic of a collapsed cave that carried an underground river.

It was . . . impressive enough, which is almost exactly the same reaction that Louis Philippe, a future king of France, had while visiting in the late 18th century. He found it “truly an exceptional sight,” but one located in “scrubby country,” something to be sketched and remembered, but “not really worth a second trip.” Granted, “worth a second trip” meant something very different in the 18th century than it does in the 21st.

Today, the challenge for most pilgrims to Natural Bridge is rekindling some facsimile of the awe that earlier visitors experienced. The site has been so frequently photographed, and those images so often reproduced and now Instagrammed, that standing in its presence feels more like meeting a celebrity than an encounter with the sublime. I was glad to see it towering above me, but it took a conscious effort to connect with the power it must have had before images of Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains defined a new standard of the American scenic grandeur.

An exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond helps make sense of the expectations, the mild disappointment and even some of the embarrassment the future king of France and I felt. “Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art” surveys the bridge as icon and propaganda from its earliest appearance in the visual record through its glory days as a symbol of the early republic, and on to the long tail of its afterlife as a wayside attraction, tourist trap and, now, state park. Even more than a visit to the arch itself, the paintings, drawings, prints and photographs in the exhibition force one to think about the curious way in which claiming and exalting the natural landscape has been part of the great American inferiority complex since before the country existed.

Jefferson’s reaction to the bridge, the scenic jewel of a 157-acre plot he purchased from King George III in 1774, was recorded in his “Notes on Virginia.” From the top of the bridge, looking over the precipice to the creek below inspired terror, but seen safely from below, he wrote, the arch “is delightful in an equal extreme.” This was a classic statement of a philosophical category of great interest at the time — the sublime — which was related to but distinct from beauty. Things that were beautiful were understood to be orderly, in harmony, balanced, proportionate to themselves and generally integrated into a world that was either man-made or served man’s purposes. But what about the delight we take in things that are enormous, wild or chaotic, such as a turbulent seascape, a dense, dark forest or a violent thunderstorm?

For this, the sublime was pressed into service, and one philosopher, Immanuel Kant, gave it a specific twist: There are things that are spectacular and terrifying that don’t actually scare us, thus confirming a higher sense of our dominion or rational mastery of them.

This seems to be the idea suggested by the first painting encountered in the VMFA exhibition, Caleb Boyle’s rather static portrait of Jefferson (ca. 1801), with the arch behind him. The artist’s perspective renders Jefferson larger than the arch itself, making it seem as though the bridge forms a niche from which Jefferson has emerged, or a low portal to the land beyond.

Jefferson was an eager champion of the arch as a symbol of the nation’s grandeur, but even in this early rendering — the first extant painting of the bridge — you detect the range of its symbolic ambiguity. Is this a natural wonder of the world or a domesticated folly in Jefferson’s back garden? Is it an arch? A bridge? A gothic window on the unknown continent that lay to the west? A portal offering glimpses of a dark or brilliant future?

For decades after Boyle painted his portrait, the bridge played all of those roles, to varying degrees. Edward Hicks included the arch in one of more than five dozen paintings depicting his Quaker fantasy of an Edenic “Peaceable Kingdom” on Earth. In Hicks’s rendering, the bridge looks as though it is man-made, from carefully laid stones, as if it were a relic of Roman engineering. He also included a cow snuggling a placid lion, a lamb and other wildlife, a child and, in the shadow of the arch, a small image of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, making his famous treaty with Native Americans.

Hicks is an endearing but clumsy artist, so perhaps the masonry of his arch is just bad painting. Or perhaps this was an attempt to assert his view of man’s potential, through religion, to pacify the world through bridging its differences.

His painting captures the slightly lopsided profile of the arch, which he knew through an image included on a popular 1822 map of the United States. This slightly humped view, in which the opening seems to lean to the right, became a visual tic for artists, almost like a distinctive nose, double chin or high forehead might be used to create an instantly recognizable caricature of a famous politician. It is particularly pronounced in a fanciful 1835 wallpaper design, from France, that included the bridge and Niagara Falls, geologically connected with a horse-drawn streetcar offering views of both.

The most famous, and perhaps most artistically enduring, rendering was Church’s 1852 painting, which also figured prominently in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Alexander von Humboldt exhibition (on view until July 11, although minus the Church painting). Church chose a familiar view, from below, with a bit of sky and greenery visible through the arch, but he also got the shadows and lighting right in a way that will satisfy anyone who has seen the arch in person.

Church’s distinctive interpretive addition was a small tableau beneath the bridge, with an African American guide pointing out features of the scene to a seated woman. In 1852, this was not an incidental narrative flourish, but a telling reference to the fundamental fracture and founding sin of the republic — slavery — which defined the increasingly aggressive, belligerent and inhumane society of the Southern states. Church’s grandly scaled 1857 painting of Niagara Falls is often interpreted as a metaphor for the deluge of political violence that seemed inevitable just before the Civil War; his vision of Natural Bridge suggests that he intuited the coming strife even earlier, as a necessary but shadowy passage through which the country must inevitably pass.

We don’t know what the African American man is saying as he points to the arch above. When I stood in roughly the same spot as these two figures, I was thinking about some of the distinctly venal purposes to which we put our supposedly disinterested love of natural beauty. For Jefferson, the most aesthetically sophisticated and personally deluded of the early American political elite, Natural Bridge was propaganda, a beautiful thing that might deflect European attention from the ugliness at the core of the American project, an ugliness in which he was fully implicated.

I spent much of the pandemic watching, in real time, the necessary dissolution of the nation’s self-aggrandizing and innocent sense of its history and purpose. For a moment, I was tempted by Jefferson’s offer: to scatter doubt, disappointment and civic embarrassment, and embrace the beauty of this old, well-trod landscape. I wanted to forget for a while the unmasking of American exceptionalism that was circulating everywhere in the land, including on the steps down to Cedar Creek. How can this country be ugly when it has such beautiful vistas?

That is roughly the conversation I imagine Church’s figures are having. She to him: What a lovely, peaceful spot. And he to her: Yes, it is beautiful here, but just beyond the frame of this picture we inhabit, there are horrors you cannot imagine.

Virginia Arcadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art Through Aug. 1 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. vmfa.museum.