Thomas Birch was America’s first marine painter and thus the founder of a long and great tradition. He studied under his father, William, a painter and engraver, and in 1794 the two emigrated from England to Philadelphia. The War of 1812 inspired the younger Birch to produce a series of over a...
Thomas Birch was America’s first marine painter and thus the founder of a long and great tradition. He studied under his father, William, a painter and engraver, and in 1794 the two emigrated from England to Philadelphia. The War of 1812 inspired the younger Birch to produce a series of over a dozen naval pictures based on actual battles, each executed within months of the event—exemplars of the type of contemporary history painting initiated by Benjamin West. The unexpected American victories in the war against Great Britain—the first test of the nation as a military force—were a source of great pride to its citizens and provided a worthy subject for history painters to promote the new republic. Birch’s compositions were as accurate as he could make them. He carefully rendered the ships’ portraits and also included details of the fighting gleaned from interviews with participating crewmembers. His paintings were acclaimed not only for their sense of immediacy, but also for their appeal to the patriotic fervor of the young country. This painting documents the first great American naval victory of the War of 1812, the defeat of the British frigate Guerrière by the USS Constitution off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on August 19, 1812. At the right, the helpless Guerrière, her last mast broken off and crashing into the ocean, is driven up against the Constitution, whose cannonfire relentlessly continues to pound the British ship. American flags proudly wave above the conflict, while the British banner sinks into the waves. This was Birch’s first War of 1812 subject, and it established his reputation. The USS Constitution got her nickname, “Old Ironsides,” during this very battle. A British sailor, upon observing that their cannonballs appeared to bounce off of the ship (her hull is made of layers of oak up to twenty-five inches thick), exclaimed, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!”The Constitution went on to win other engagements in the War of 1812. The oldest active ship in the United States Navy, she is permanently docked at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Notes 1. Naval History and Heritage Command, “USS Constitution: History,” accessed August 30, 2011, http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html [http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html]. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Highlights, 2003).
Lower left: T Birch 1813
Peale Museum, Baltimore. 1854, sold at the Philadelphia auction of Charles Willson Peale's collection of paintings to Joseph Harrison, Jr. (1810-1874), Philadelphia; 1874, by inheritance to his widow, Sarah Poulterer Harrison (1817-1906); March 12, 1912, Harrison sale, M. Thomas and Sons, Philadelphia to Herbert L. Pratt (1871-1945), New York; by 1945, by descent to his son, Frederick R. Pratt (1907-1966), New York. By 1977, with Coe Kerr Gallery, New York; 1978, sold by Coe Kerr Gallery to the MFA. (Accession Date: May 10, 1978)
Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow Fund and Emily L. Ainsley Fund