Thomas Jefferson wrote that Natural Bridge is “the most sublime of nature’s works”: “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime to be felt beyond what they are here.” He purchased the bridge from King George III so that so potent a landmark would remain accessible to the public, and his exclamatory statements about the bridge’s intoxicating power were widely circulated when they appeared in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). The future president made Natural Bridge so famous that it was remembered a half century later by Herman Melville when the author described the sublime whale he created, Moby Dick. He wrote, “The fore part of him slowly rose from the water; for an instant his whole marbleized body formed a high arch, like Virginia’s Natural Bridge, and… the grand god revealed himself, sounded, and went out of sight.”
What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he reported “emotions arising from the sublime”? The explanation is that he had been reading Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), which led the future president to search the Virginia landscape to find evidence of sublimity.
The British statesman-to-be Edmund Burke offered a philosophy about the landscape that guided connoisseurs and artists in Europe and America for more than a century. He labeled “beautiful” those things that are smooth, varied in form, or delicate, and induce in us a sense of affection and tenderness—like a rose or the bend of a swan’s neck. More relevant to the painter were those powerful forces of nature and those elements visible in nature that threaten our self-preservation and make us aware of the futility of human arrangements.