Thomas Birch (1779 - 1851), "Falconer's Shipwreck"
Thomas Birch (1779 - 1851)
Signed and dated lower right: T. Birch/Phila 1828
Oil on canvas
40" x 60" (canvas)
Thomas Birch was one of the most important American landscape and marine painters of
the early 19th century. He moved to America in 1794 with his father William Birch (1755-1834), a painter and engraver from whom he received his artistic training. The family settled in Philadelphia, where William, armed with letters of introduction from Benjamin West to leading citizens of that city, became a drawing-master. Early in their American careers both Birches executed cityscapes, several of which were engraved. Aside from stylistic affinities, the works of both father and son tended to emphasize the cultural progress and commercial prosperity of the young United States as well as its almost Edenic natural beauty.
Birch's most accomplished works are his seascapes. It was at the time of the War of 1812 with Britain that Birch took up marine painting. Although he continued to paint landscapes, particularly with river views and country estates, many of his works from the second half of his career are naval scenes that reflect his mastery of the Anglo-Dutch tradition of marine painting. While these compositions frequently depict shipping on the Delaware and in New York harbor, he also executed a series of important canvases chronicling major naval engagements of the war. His seascapes with shipping along rocky coasts buffeted by storms recall the compositions of Joseph Vernet, whose work Birch knew first hand and through prints, and those of Vernet's followers in England, such as Philippe de Loutherbourg. Birch was a frequent exhibitor at the Pennsylvania Academy, where he served as keeper from 1812 to 1817, as well as at other artistic institutions in Philadelphia and New York.
This dramatic, large-scale seascape is a foremost example of Birch's work. The subject of the disastrous shipwreck with survivors tossed against a rocky shore was a favorite theme in late 18th and early 19th-century French and English painting. Shipwrecks being a common occurrence at this time, some of Birch's paintings of the subject were commissioned by survivors. This particular work, however, is believed to have been inspired by William Falconer's popular poem, The Shipwreck, published in England in 1762 and well-known in America by the early 1800s. A version of this work, entitled The Rescue, is in the collection of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland.