New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
Thomas Birch
River View
Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 16 1/4 × 25 7/8 inches
Signed at lower left: “Tho. Birch/1819”

Thomas Birch was born in Warwickshire, England, and immigrated to the United States in 1794 with his father the artist William Birch (1755–1834). The younger Birch studied with his father and assisted him with his best-known undertaking, the series of engraved and etched views of Philadelphia called The City of Philadelphia (1800). He began to paint miniature portraits in watercolor and by 1806 turned to the landscapes and the marine scenes on which he built his reputation. From the War of 1812 and through the 1820s Birch painted multiple versions of significant naval battles from the conflict, as well as portraits of ships. Although primarily influenced by Dutch seventeenth-century marine painting, Birch’s later work is indebted to the French romantic seascape painter Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714–1789). Birch, who spent his entire career in Philadelphia, exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1811 to 1851, at the Artists’ Fund Society from 1835 to 1845, the National Academy of Design from 1832 to 1845, and various other places. John Wilmerding has noted that Birch’s best work is characterized by “clear coloring and a clean palette that served well his desire to transmit the freshness of light or air and the fluidity of water,” qualities that helped him to attain the position of being “the first ship painter in this country to gain enthusiastic public acceptance.”1

This unidentified topographical river view bears a strong resemblance to two much larger paintings that Birch had painted the previous year, View from the Hill at Bordentown, New Jersey (1818, private collection), and Point Breeze from the Delaware (1818, private collection).2 Both paintings represent Joseph Bonaparte’s estate Point Breeze, located on the Delaware River near Bordentown, New Jersey. Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon, had been the king of Naples and Spain. Bonaparte fled to the United States after Napoleon’s surrender after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and settled in Philadelphia. He bought Point Breeze in 1816, and lived there until 1832. Bonaparte was an avid collector of fine and decorative arts, and Birch, like a number of Philadelphia artists and cognoscenti, was familiar with his collection. While it is impossible to ascertain beyond doubt that this is a view of Point Breeze, both the topography and date suggest that it represents an estate on the Delaware River in that general area.


1. John Wilmerding, A History of American Marine Painting (Salem, Mass.: The Peabody Museum of Salem, 1968), p. 106. Despite Birch’s importance, a monograph devoted to the artist’s career has not yet been written.

2. The former is illustrated in American Art from the Colonial and Federal Periods [exh. cat.] (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 1982), no. 60, and the latter in Patricia Tyson Stroud, “Point Breeze: Joseph Bonaparte’s American Retreat,” Antiques (October 2002), pl. 1, pp. 130–31.

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