Born in England, Thomas Birch became the earliest marine painter specialist in America, and also was noted for landscapes, although they were described by art historian James Flexner has having “never transcended the illustrator’s tradition.” (187). Many of these landscapes were snowscenes, and several depicted the Hudson River Valley.
Thomas Birch was the son of William Russell Birch, an engraver and painter of enamel miniatures. They immigrated in 1794 to the United States and worked together as William Birch and Son in Philadelphia. They did designing, engraving, and publishing of topographic views of the city, regarded “as some of the finest cityscapes done in American in the late 18th century.” One of the best-known scenes by Thomas Birch was Penn’s Treaty Tree, a depiction of a huge shading tree dominating most of the canvas with harbor activity as a secondary theme.
Thomas Birch began painting large and miniature portraits in oil and watercolor and also did marine subjects, becoming noted for ship portraits, and seascapes especially with naval battles of the War of 1812. Some of the best known of these paintings are The ‘Constitution’, The United States and The Macedonian. Many of his collectors were the owners of the ships shown in the ship portraits and officers whose ships had won the battles. Birch turned out the paintings as soon after the battles as he could. He also did dramatic ship wreck scenes, derived from accounts of the survivors.
In the 1830s, he began painting landscapes and developed a reputation for snow scenes that had much human activity such as skating and sleigh riding. He also designed coins for the U.S. Mint and became highly influential at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.
Although he lived and painted primarily in Philadelphia, he also painted in New Jersey, in New York along the Hudson River, on the Delaware River estate of the exiled Joseph Bonaparte, former king of Naples and Spain, and along the Maine and Massachusetts coasts.
Despite the fact that he was held in much respect by his contemporaries, he died in poverty