Thomas Birch is considered one of the earliest American Marine painters of importance both in his own time and historically, forming the foundation of what would become a great American Maritime movement in the successive years of the 19th century.
Born in England, Birch started as a landscape painter but after the War of 1812 he turned to marine subjects, taking inspiration from the best of both English and Dutch maritime traditions but refining these techniques into a very recognizable style all his own.
The work featured here is a classic of Birch's later period, when he focused specifically on maritime subjects, mainly the busy waterways of Philadelphia Harbor. Here we see one of those scenes- a series of ships plying their trade, all framed by the city as it sits across the Delaware River, with the tall, white spire of what is either Independence Hall or Christ Church to the left of the main vessel. The details of the city are particularly good in this painting, with the wharf building to the left and the long line of buildings all along the shore.
The American Merchant Bark at the center of this painting is rendered in excellent detail, from her house flag and pennant, to her rigging and sails, and down to her deck filled with the activity of crewmembers readying the ship to head out, her gilt billet head pointing the way.
To the left, a trio of sailors look up at the larger ship from their small two-masted sailboat, while nearer to shore a side-wheel paddle wheeler steams ahead. To the merchantman's right a tree-lined shore sits behind a series of other small sailing ships, including a single masted fishing vessel.
Though the artist was not a sailor, he spent many hours observing and sketching ships along the shore, asking the sailors of Philadelphia's wharf to tutor him on ship configurations and offer critiques on his work. As the artist continue to paint, he kept a desire for correct depiction of the ships but moved away from strict detail and filled his paintings with soft color and light, gaining a reputation for brilliant depictions of the interaction between light and water, between sky and sea.
This painting epitomizes all of Birch's best qualities, particularly in the harmonious colors illuminating the clouds, the ships and highlighting the currents of the Delaware River. The result is an active and interesting scene where the eye moves easily among many elements, creating a sense of idyllic calm.
Birch remained in Philadelphia for most of life. He frequently exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, heading up the organization for a time, as well as contributing to other artistic institutions in both Philadelphia and New York. Today his works are held in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art among many other important private and institutional collections. Most importantly, Birch inspired generations of American maritime artists that followed, who like him created luminist masterpieces, elevating scenes of America's waterways.
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