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Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1873
W.H. Langworthy

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Oil on canvas
36 x 29 inches
Signature Details: W.H. Langworthy. 1873
Status: Available

To the well-documented body of work, encompassing both paintings and prints, of Natural Bridge in Virginia, W. H. Langworthy's Natural Bridge of 1873, recently rediscovered, is an extremely important addition.1 First depicted in engravings made by Europeans in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, the bridge's representation received its fullest glory seventy to eight years later in paintings by America's Hudson River School artists, most notably, Frederic Edwin Church.


Thomas Jefferson came into possession of Natural Bridge in 1774.  He exhorted artists to paint the bridge, considered one of the natural wonders of North America, second in grandeur only to Niagara Falls. The Marquis de Chastellux visited Natural Bridge at Jefferson's invitation in 1782, and he was so awed by the sight that he commissioned three drawings from the Baron de Turpin of the Royal Corps of Engineers and published them in his book Voyages en Nord Amerique (1786). Numerous engravings and aquatints by British, German, French, Italian, and American engravers followed. The bridge was also the subject of lithographs by Currier & Ives, Kurz and Allison, and other American companies.


Church's Natural Bridge, Virginia (University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville), completed in 1852, emphasizes the monumental vertical thrust of the bridge. He placed the figures of a man and woman in the foreground against which the scale of the natural elements may be easily measured. They converse with each other, seemingly inattentive to the wonder of the scene behind them. The thick dark green foliage framing the bridge sets the scene in mid-to late summer.


Langworthy managed to convey not only the towering height of the bridge in his view, but also the depth of the landscape beyond it. Cedar Creek, which flows beneath the bridge, leads the eye into a mysterious, hazy region of the composition. The couple in his painting, placed similarly to the one in the Church, are even further dwarfed. Motionless and with their backs turned to the viewer, they stare through the bridge and into the watery recesses of the scene, seeming to be utterly transfixed by its grandeur. While Church's view is predominantly realistic, Langworthy's relies on emotive elements, emphasizing light effects and blurring details to render the sublimity of his subject. Cynthia Seibels


1See Pamela H. Simpson, So Beautiful an Arch: Images of the Natural Bridge, 1787-1890 (Lexington, VA.: Washington and Lee University, 1982).


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