An Artful Inquiry: The Natural Bridge of Virginia

An Artful Inquiry: The Natural Bridge of Virginia

Situated in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, the Natural Bridge is a naturally formed stone arch that measures a massive 215 feet high and 90 feet wide. The Monacan Indian Nation has a presence at the site that predates European arrival by centuries. In 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased the site from King George III as part of a 150-acre tract. Promoted by Jefferson, the arch soon became one of the most frequently depicted and easily recognizable natural wonders.

Examples of this imagery can prompt inquiry about the relationship between Virginia’s physical geography and the lives of its people past and present. Use this collection of art objects and guided looking exercises to activate students' creative and critical thinking.

Grade Level:
Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12, Teacher Professional Development
Collection:
American Art
Culture/Region:
America, Virginia
Subject Area:
African American, Communication, Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, History and Social Science, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Art in Depth

Introduction

Situated in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Natural Bridge formed gradually as the waters of Cedar Creek eroded limestone, resulting in an arch that measures a massive 215 feet high and 90 feet wide. The rock formation is more than 400 million years old and Virginia’s Monacan Indian Nation has a presence at the site that predates European arrival by centuries. The earliest written and published references to it involve historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In 1774 Thomas Jefferson purchased the site from King George III as part of a 150-acre tract of land. Promoted by Jefferson, the arch soon became one of the most frequently depicted and easily recognizable natural wonders.

Examples of this imagery can prompt inquiry about the relationship between Virginia’s physical geography and the lives of its people past and present. This collection of objects lets students expand their understanding of western expansion, slavery, tourism, and ecological conservation by examining and questioning the imagery and ideas each one presents. 

Each focus object is followed by other artworks for extended thinking and consideration.  As students investigate, encourage them to document thinking by using the prompts and strategies provided.

Marking place: What ideas might a map reveal?

Maps are visual representations of how we understand the world. The notations and demarcations on a map can indicate not only the location of elements of the landscape but also how humans conceive of and interact with the natural world and one another.  This early map of Virginia, designed by surveyors Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson in 1753, offers an important visual record of how the landscape was understood and valued as the British settlement expanded westward. 

Looking closely at the map’s boundaries, place names, and other notations can offer clues and open lines of inquiry about Virginia in the mid-to-late 18th century.  We can look for the place where Natural Bridge is located and take note of how this area is marked on this early map of Virginia. 

Take a Closer Look

Click through this slides below to explore the map and see what ideas it presents to you.

 


Marking Place: Other objects to examine

You may wish to look at some other maps and consider what clues they offer.  What do they tell us about how these artists understand Virginia’s features?

What questions arise as you look at these objects?  Try the Looking to Learn: I See / I Think / I Wonder exercise to start your inquiry.

Representing Experience: What ideas might a painting reveal?

Thomas Jefferson purchased Natural Bridge in 1774 and began a lifelong promotion of the site as a natural wonder. He believed that his homeland and its vistas were equal in grandeur to any European destination and that Natural Bridge could produce a spiritual or moral experience for anyone who visited. Artists like Joshua Shaw, who made this small oil painting of the Natural Bridge in about 1820, would have been familiar with Jefferson’s thoughts. The artist seems to quote in paint some ideas that Jefferson shared in writing in his Notes on the State of Virginia which was first published in 1785.

Placing ourselves in the shoes of the figure we can see in this painting can help us think about perspective and point of view.

 

Take a Closer Look

Click through the slides below to gather some ideas and ask questions about the experience this painting might be trying to convey.

 

 

 


Representing Experience: Other Objects to Examine

You may wish to examine some other artworks and consider the experiences the people depicted might be having.  Use the Looking to Learn: Perceive Know Care About exercise to guide your inquiry.

Representing geography: What ideas might a print reveal?

The geography of Virginia is rich and varied. It was of great interest to nineteenth-century artists as they traveled throughout the state.  Examining this print, made for popular consumption in 1858, might make us curious about how the geography around Natural Bridge was understood at the time.

Looking carefully at the details included in a landscape view can help us consider what may have been interesting to viewers at the time it was made. What aspects of the landscape seem important? What ideas about land development are presented?

Take a Closer Look

Click through the slides below to gather some ideas and ask questions about Natural Bridge and its geographical location.

 


Presenting Geography: Other objects to examine

You may wish to examine some other views of  Virginia to think about the attitudes towards geography and land development they might reveal.  Use the Seeing and SIFTing exercise to guide your inquiry.

Adding Context: What ideas might an illustration reveal?

J. & F. Tallis
English, 1842–1849
After William Goodacre
English, 1803–1883
Natural Bridge, Virginia, ca. 1843
Engraving
Private collection

A view of Natural Bridge by British artist William Goodacre, published first in about 1840, was frequently copied and published in guidebooks and portfolios.  The scene shows two figures at the base of the bridge aiming a rifle at a pair of stags across Cedar Creek.

In this copy of the print, Goodacre’s original representation of Natural Bridge has been placed inside a frame of additional images, offering a new lens through which to view and think about this natural wonder.

If we take a closer look at this composition, we might be able to unpack the visual clues and the ideas they present.

Take a closer look

Click through the slides below to gather ideas and questions about Natural Bridge’s association with Virginia history, including slavery.


Adding Context: Other objects to examine

You may wish to examine some other objects that feature enslaved people. As you do, think about the attitudes about slavery they might reveal.  Use the Writing to Learn: Headlines, Tweets, and Memes exercise to document your thinking.

Studying nature: What ideas might an oil sketch reveal?

In 1877, New York City artist Jervis McEntee traveled to the Natural Bridge where he made this small oil sketch of the site. Measuring only 13 1/2 inches high, the little board on which this sketch was painted would have been easy for McEntee to carry down to the base of the bridge so that he could make a visual study of the textures, colors, and forms he encountered at the site.

Taking a closer look at this artwork can help us imagine how McEntee worked. We can consider the artistic decisions he made as he visually recorded the physical characteristics of the bridge.

Take a closer look

Click through the slides below to gather ideas and questions about what it might be like to make a nature study at Natural Bridge.


Studying nature: other objects to examine

You may wish to examine some objects to consider how other artists recorded the qualities of Virginia’s natural world.  Use the Writing to Learn: Sensory Inventory exercise to document your thinking.