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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Narrator 1] We're in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and we're looking at a painting by Frederic Church of The Natural Bridge in Virginia. Now this is a natural formation and an important place for American landscape painters, made clear through this wonderful exhibition at the museum where we can see a lot of paintings, prints, drawings of the Natural Bridge. - [Narrator 2] One of the things curator Chris Oliver's exhibition about the Natural Bridge allows us to see is that painters before Church, such as Jacob Caleb Ward in the mid 1830s, had generally painted Natural Bridge as a horizontal feature in the western Virginia landscape. So as you come up to Natural Bridge as it actually exists out there in Virginia, you are struck by its horizontality. - [Narrator 1] And we think about bridges as horizontal formations and we generally think about landscape paintings as horizontal. - [Narrator 2] Church, more than any other American painter of the 1840s and 1850s, celebrates, metaphorically, American republicanism. - [Narrator 1] The United States, as this new nation, is looking back to ancient Rome, to the Roman Republic, as this model that had existed long before and could the United States continue that great model of republican form of government? - [Narrator 2] America's founding ideal. And so I think Church is thinking of all of those things here and as he's choosing to paint Natural Bridge in a way different from his painter predecessors has, he gives us a vertical Natural Bridge. And I think what he's doing is he's referencing the form of the Roman Republican triumphal arch. He's turning America's landscape into a reference to ancient Rome, pointing to how America, the United States, is where Roman republicanism is being extended. In the 19th century, America was always conscious of not being as old as the Europe from which white America came. One of the great things about the way Church paints Natural Bridge is that he paints it as old as he can show it. It's nooked, it's crannied, it's weathered, and it's holding on and surviving. And in 1852, America's republicanism is increasingly challenged by the expansion of slavery across America's Southern tier. - [Narrator 1] I think we feel Church's love and admiration for the American landscape. He's paid such careful attention to the plants, the trees, the rocks, the water bubbling past the rocks. - [Narrator 2] Church is presenting his Natural Bridge within a landscape that is bursting with life, which I think we can also consider a metaphor for his hopefulness about the continuity of American republicanism. - [Narrator 1] The landscape holds so much meaning. In a way, it's like a language that artists are using to express ideas about the United States - [Narrator 2] In 1836 in his book-length essay, "Nature", Ralph Waldo Emerson instructs Americans, artists, poets, novelists, politicians, to use American nature in metaphors that address the idea of the American nation. And so, as Emerson's book is becoming popular, painters are looking for ways to engage the American present and Frederic Church is one of the first painters to embrace Emerson's instruction. - [Narrator 1] We have two figures. A white woman seated on the ground and a black figure who's pointing up to the bridge and instructing her. And there's a sense, to me, of a shared history, perhaps. Or at least the question of a common history as they look up at the bridge. - [Narrator 2] Church is telling us he's got faith that America's republicanism will hold on and endure. (upbeat piano music)