Landscape and the American republic, Frederic Church’s Natural Bridge

Frederic Church, The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852, oil on canvas, 28 x 23 inches (The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia)

 

Church, Natural Bridge

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Key Points

  • Natural Bridge, a natural limestone formation located in western Virginia, has long been the subject of artistic renderings. A substantial number of such images were produced in the first half of the 19th century, when the site was actively celebrated as a symbol of the natural beauty of the American landscape.
  • Unlike the horizontal compositions of most other artists, Frederic Edwin Church depicted the Natural Bridge with an emphasis on its verticality, making a visual reference to the form of ancient Roman triumphal arches. This visual parallel served as a metaphor for the linkage between the republicanism of the newly established United States and its model in ancient Rome. 
  • The need to reinforce the tie to ancient Roman republicanism was heightened in the mid-19th century. Slavery was expanding across southern and western territories in the U.S., and many people saw this trend as a threat to the young republic. Frederic Edwin Church, however, had faith that the republic would endure. Like other 19th-century landscape painters, he employed his images of the natural terrain and its wonders as visual definitions or metaphors of the state of the nation.

Go Deeper

Read more about the 2021 exhibition, Virginia Acadia: The Natural Bridge in American Art, held at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Learn more about this painting in the context of the 2020–21 exhibition, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States; Art, Nature, and Culture, held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

More to Think About

Church’s painting is meticulous in the rendering of natural details, from rocks to plants to the bubbling stream. Do you think this level of realism is essential to communicating his message of support for American republicanism? Why or why not? 

Knowing that Church’s intention with this painting was to convey his belief in the future of the American republic, how might you imagine the conversation between the two figures in the scene?  

What other natural formations do you think are symbolic of the United States in some way? Have you visited any of these sites in person? Compare them with the symbolism of Natural Bridge.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.