Thomas Birch (1779–1851)
Popular American portrait and marine painter, especially in Philadelphia.
By Tiffany Win
A pioneer in landscape and marine painting, Thomas Birch is considered to be the first American ship portraitist.
VII. Suggested Resources
Thomas Birch was born in 1779 in Warwickshire, England. At fifteen-years-old, he moved to the United States with his father William Birch, the well-known enamel painter and miniaturist. Birch was trained by his father and used his extensive European painting collection as inspiration for his own artworks. His first major oil painting appears to have been View of Philadelphia, From the Treaty Elm at Kensington (1804, whereabouts unknown), which was engraved by the famed artist Samuel Seymour and published by the artist’s father.
Though Thomas Birch began his career as a portraitist of both large oil paintings and small watercolor miniatures in 1800, these works were not of remarkable quality. It is important to note, however, that of the few early portraits that survive, all depict subjects with naval and shipping connections. It is said that after a visit to the Cape of Delaware in 1807, Birch took a deeper interest in landscape painting. By 1811, the year of the first exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Birch had established himself in the field of landscape and seascape painting, fulfilling his lifelong fascination with the sea. Birch contributed twelve works to PAFA’s inaugural show, none of which were portraits, but rather ranged from portrayals of estates and views of Philadelphia to pure landscapes, a winter scene, and a seascape. He became Keeper of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1812 and 1817, succeeding John Vallance in this position.
The influence of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, such as those by and after Van Ruisdael and Van Goyen, can be seen in his series of naval battle scenes. Birch had direct access to such works through his father’s art collection. Shortly after beginning to focus on and exhibit more marine views, Birch began to infuse patriotism into his works, appealing to the country’s rising nationalism. He achieved renown for paintings of the American naval engagements of the War of 1812. Of Birch’s oeuvre, fifteen of his battle scenes are related to the War of 1812.
His painting style combines precise, accurate ship portraiture with the emotional appeal inherent in the violence and destruction of war. Birch portrays battles between American ships, such as the Constitution and the Wasp, to capture the exciting and politically tenuous atmosphere in America in his time. Evidenced by Birch’s insistence to interview as many of the ship’s crew as he could to gather details for use in his paintings, Birch’s naval battles were dedicated to accuracy.
This attention to detail extends to his other landscapes and seascapes, as Birch portrayed nature without the romantic embellishments of ruins and follies that were popular at the time. Many of his Philadelphia landscapes continue the rustic tradition of English painting. And although the subject matter is said to represent the rural countryside of either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, Birch’s imagination was clearly oriented toward seventeenth century Dutch painting.
Once Birch established his forms of marine and landscape paintings, he tended not to vary them. In his harbor scenes, Birch attends to capturing the landmarks of the Philadelphia shoreline in great detail and repeating the same shoreline in almost all of these compositions. Another area in which Birch was to establish a tradition was marine portraiture. Birch’s accurate depiction of specific vessels were not limited to capturing battles, but also commissioned by ships’ owners, and are often identified by their flags, figureheads, and names upon their bow. While some of the works can be considered “ship portraits,” others are painted in a more exciting context such as in stormy seas. These dramatic works of storms at seas are known to be Birch’s most significant contribution to American art of his time, and also have a kinship to Thomas Cole’s moralistic visions being painted at the same time. Birch too reveals his concept of the opposition of Man and Nature with the wild, ferocious power of the sea, the dark, gloomy, threatening skies, and the bare and craggy rocks, endangering sailors and thwarting any attempt of rescue for drowning victims.
Though Birch did not achieve international fame, he was extremely popular in Philadelphia with collectors, critics, and fellow artists until his death on January 3, 1851. His art represents an amalgam of different styles which developed abroad and, at the time, found tentative representation in the States and early Republic. Thomas Birch is considered to be the first American marine artist and recognized for initiating forms that were to continue throughout the nineteenth century as an integral part of American art.
1779 Born in Warwickshire, England.
1794 Moves to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his father, William Birch.
1800 Establishes himself independently as a portraitist
1804 Thomas Birch’s first major oil painting View of Philadelphia, From the Treaty Tree At Kensington. Published by William Birch this year.
1807 Visits Cape of Delaware, interest in landscape painting begins.
1811 First exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Birch contributes twelve pieces.
1812 Succeeds John Vallance as Keeper of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Begins his series of paintings related to the War of 1812, the first one titled The ‘Constitution’ and the ‘Guerriere’.
1813 Finishes The ‘United States’ and the ‘Macedonian’.
1814 Paints and exhibits Battle of Lake Erie at the Academy, his largest known painting.
1817 Steps down as Keeper of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
1833 Exhibits Loss of the Schooner ‘John S. Spence’ at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
1837 Exhibits Still Life in the Artists’ Fund Society exhibition in Philadelphia, the only still life Birch would exhibit.
1838 Exhibits Perry Leaving the ‘Lawrence’ at the Apollo Association in New York City.
1848 Exhibits The ‘United States’ and ‘Macedonian’ at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
1850 Exhibits Marine View at the American Art-Union.
1851 Dies on January 3 in Philadelphia.
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
James A. Michener Art Museum, PA
Joslyn Art Museum, NE
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Nantucket Historical Association, MA
New-York Historical Society, NY
Peabody Essex Museum, MA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
Pennsylvania Historical Society, PA
Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, NY
Shelburne Museum, VT
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain
Timken Museum of Art, CA
1795 Columbianum Exhibition (4 views of London)
1811–62 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1832–45 National Academy of Design
1833–35 American Academy
1838–39 Apollo Association
1838–50 American Art-Union
1848–58 Maryland Historical Society
1872 Brooklyn Art Association
Artists’ Fund Society
Society of Artists
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Keeper, 1812–1817)
National Academy of Design
Philadelphia: three centuries of American art (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976): 229.
William Gerdts, Thomas Birch, 1779-1851: paintings and drawings (Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1966): 14.
VII. Suggested Resources
Falk, Peter H., Audrey M. Lewis, Georgia Kuchen, and Veronika Roessler. Who was who in American art, 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999.
Gerdts, William. Thomas Birch, 1779–1851: paintings and drawings. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1966.
Philadelphia: three centuries of American art. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976.