In Natural Arch at Capri, William Stanley Haseltine offers a composite view of well-known rock formations and vistas from the Italian island. In addition to the Arco Naturale at the center, sheer, rocky crags rise abruptly from the sea on the right. These are the Faraglioni, which would not, in reality be visible from this vantage point. Atop the farthest cliff on the left are the gleaming white ruins of Villa Jovis, one of 12 villas built on Capri by Emperor Tiberius in the first century. Although Haseltine gave the image a striking sense of geological accuracy, he was not bound to strict topographical fidelity, instead demonstrating a strong interest in capturing the general spirit of Caprese scenery in a single balanced and harmonious composition.
Haseltine combines these seemingly-opposed modes of landscape painting to a powerfully dramatic effect. By juxtaposing a close-up, detailed foreground with a distant, atmospheric background, Haseltine created a dynamic spatial tension that moves the viewer's eye from near to far and back again in a visually startling way. He deliberately minimized the presence of human elements: only the miniscule sailboats plying the water and the tiny form of the Villa Jovis give the viewer any sense of relative scale. As a result, the foreground rocks seem fantastically huge, capable of dwarfing all human endeavor. This theme of man and his creations appearing insignificant in the face of nature was common in nineteenth-century American landscape painting.
Haseltine had long been fascinated with coastal scenes in which unusual and dramatic rock formations stood in stark juxtaposition to the sea. In the late 1850s he had made such landscapes in Italy before returning to New England in the early and mid-1860s. In these "rock-portraits," as one contemporary described them, Haseltine focused on three main elements—massive rocks, expansive sea, and radiant sky. It was through similar means that the artist portrayed the famous coastal sites along the Bay of Naples when he returned to Italy in the late 1860s. But by the time this painting was completed in 1871, Haseltine's style had evolved beyond pure topographical transcription to capture dramatic scenes of natural beauty that helped elevate the status of landscape painting in the decades following the Civil War.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 274-278, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf