Thomas Birch


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Painter and engraver. Known for topographical landscapes and cityscapes, he also introduced into the United States the European traditions of marine painting. Born in Warwickshire, England, he arrived with his family in the United States in 1794 to settle permanently in the Philadelphia area. Many views of specific locales document his adopted city and its surroundings. The light-filled Delaware River Front, Philadelphia (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, c. 1799) precisely delineates waterfront buildings, ships moored along the quay, and characteristic early morning activities. Also exactingly portraying a Philadelphia site, the Southeast View of “Sedgeley Park,” the Country Seat of James Cowles Fisher, Esq. (Smithsonian American Art Museum, c. 1819) numbers among the artist's many similarly conceived representations of estates situated in the mid-Atlantic states and New England. Correspondingly, on commission Birch also portrayed individual ships. In addition, he often painted the Philadelphia and New York harbors, capturing the vitality of international seafaring trade. His romantic, action-oriented views of the high seas included imaginary scenes of peril and shipwreck, as well as veristic representations, appealing to patriotic sentiment, of American victories in the War of 1812. The marine paintings demonstrate Birch's familiarity with Anglo-Dutch precedents and with works by eighteenth-century French painter Claude-Joseph Vernet. Starting in the 1830s, Birch painted some of the earliest American scenes of rural life in winter, and he also produced portraits.

Birch learned his craft from his father, painter and engraver William Russell Birch (1755–1834), who also passed on to his son a grounding in eighteenth-century English landscape and marine conventions. Also born in Warwickshire, during his early years in London William became a leading enamel specialist, in demand for portraits and copies of paintings, including important examples by his friend and mentor Joshua Reynolds. Adept in addition at painted and engraved views, during his residency in the United States he became most widely known for his work on the earliest American color plate book, the ambitious City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, North America: As It Appeared in the Year 1800 (issued in parts in 1799 and 1800). Undertaken with his son, this publication featured hand-colored engravings based on their paintings, such as Thomas's previously mentioned riverfront scene. Another volume of similar format, The Country Seats of the United States of North America (1809), heralded a later American vogue for publications devoted to rural scenery. From 1797 until 1828, when he returned permanently to Philadelphia, he lived at a country retreat outside the city, near Bristol. Thomas's sister, Penelope Birch Barnes, was active as a still life painter in Philadelphia, especially between 1812 and 1830.

Subjects: Art.

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