Llanberis Pass, Wales by Thomas Birch

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Llanberis Pass, Wales by Thomas Birch

1,500.00

Thomas Birch

English (1779-1851)

Signed lower right and dated 1812

Watercolor on paper

Sight Size: 7.5 x 11.75 in. (19.05 x 29.85 cm.)
Framed Size: 14.5 x 21 in.  (36.8 x 53.3 cm.)

The painting we are offering for sale, Llanberis Pass, represents Thomas Birch’s rendering of what is one of Great Britain’s most ruggedly beautiful areas, the mountainous region in northwestern Wales known as Llanberis Pass. Located inside Snowdonia National Park between the Glyderau and Snowden mountain ranges (the latter containing some of Britain’s highest peaks), the area has a history that dates back to the legends of antiquity, with medieval castles and churches and even ancient Roman forts dotting the landscape of northwestern Wales. In 1953, the British Mount Everest expedition — the first expedition confirmed to have ascended to the summit of the world’s highest mountain — trained in the Llanberis Pass area before departing for the Himalayas. Today, the region is extremely popular with sightseers, rock climbers, and enthusiasts of nature.

Thomas Birch (1779-1851) was an English-born artist who became one of America’s earliest and most notable painters of seascapes and landscapes, with his work often credited as being an important progenitor of the historically consequential Hudson River School of Painting.

Born in Warwickshire, England (though some accounts list London as his birthplace), Birch and his family emigrated to America in 1794, settling in what was then the young country’s temporary capital of Philadelphia. His father, William Russell Birch (1755-1834), was a respected British engraver and painter of primarily enamel portrait miniatures whose work had been displayed in London at the Society of Artists and at the Royal Society, and whose enamel reproductions of important paintings by other artists — most notably those of his friend and mentor, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) — were the only copies to be accepted for exhibition by the Royal Academy. Establishing himself upon his arrival in America as a favored portraitist to Philadelphia’s elite, William Birch then turned his attention to the production of the first hand-colored book of engravings to be published in America, and by extension the first to offer a series of prints of any American city, in this case Philadelphia, regarded at the time as one of the most vital centers of commerce, politics, and culture in the Western Hemisphere. Formally titled The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, North America; as it appeared in the year 1800 (known colloquially as Birch’s Views of Philadelphia)the collection of 27 engraved images was a collaborative effort between William Birch and his son Thomas — working together as “William Birch and Son” — with Thomas’ technical and artistic expertise credited in large part to instruction from his father. Balancing careful renderings of important architectural edifices with the flow of everyday life in the city, the series has been hailed by art historian Matthew Baigell as representative of  “some of the finest cityscapes done in America in the late 18th century,” and was popular enough to spawn several editions through the year 1828, with the list of its many notable subscribers including two early American presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson; Jefferson, for his part, prominently displayed a copy of the series in his office throughout his presidency. Thomas Birch is credited with painting many of the watercolor sketches that were later transferred to copper plates for the series, including what is arguably the series’ most iconic view, The City and Port of Philadelphia, on the River Delaware from Kensington, a view of the city from the vantage point of an ancient elm tree that is believed to be the site of the colony of Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn’s (1644-1718) historic treaty with the Lenni Lanape Indians in 1682. (The scene was later reproduced as one of Thomas Birch’s earliest major paintings.) In 1801 William and Thomas Birch would again collaborate on what is arguably their most famous engraving, a view of the unfinished U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Prior to these joint efforts, the Birches had entered individually-executed prints and paintings in the Columbianum Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum in 1795 (America’s first public art exhibition), with Thomas Birch — then only 16 years old — contributing two small watercolours. 

During the first years of the nineteenth century, Thomas Birch turned his attention to portraiture — at that time the most dominant art form in America — and established a studio in Philadelphia in 1806. (Among his commissions was the portrait of American Revolutionary War hero Commodore Silas Talbot.) Pursuant to his interest in nature, Birch also spent time during this period sketching scenes along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, often accompanied by fellow artists John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1839), Samuel Seymour (c.1775-after 1823), and Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Following a visit to the Delaware capes in 1805, Birch developed an affinity for painting marine scenes in both watercolour and oil. By the time long-simmering hostilities between the U.S. and Great Britain culminated in the War of 1812, Birch had honed his skills to the point where his vivid depictions of naval battles on the open sea — concentrating solely on American victories — played a significant role in elevating the popularity of seascapes in American art, finding a ready market in the fervently nationalistic sentiment sweeping the country. Of the dozen or so engagements Birch would re-create over the course of the war — most produced after Birch had interviewed actual participants in the battles — two are perhaps most emblematic of the series: The “United States” and the “Macedonian” (c. 1813), which portrayed famed American Commodore Stephen Decatur’s (1779-1820) capture of the H.M.S. Macedonian off the island of Maedeira in the Atlantic, west of Morocco, in April 1812; and Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (c. 1814), a visual snapshot of the victory of Commodore Oliver Perry (1785-1819) over powerful British warships in the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, which gave control of the lake and its important transportation routes to the U.S. The popularity of Birch’s oil paintings of the war’s naval encounters was such that often multiple copies of the paintings were produced, with even a wider audience for more readily accessible prints of the canvases. (All six of Birch’s variants of The “United States” and the “Macedonian” were made into prints by respected engraver Benjamin Tanner [1775-1848].) The foundation for Birch’s technique was laid through his exposure to his father’s collection of European seascapes, which consisted primarily of work by Dutch painters Jacob van Ruisdael (1629-1682) and Jan van Goyen (1596-1656), and especially the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789). In combining these Old World antecedents into a style of his own, Birch is credited with ushering in what has become known as the “Philadelphia style of marine painting,” characterized by its pioneering use of romantic realism, in which imaginatively conceived and colored skies and atmospheric conditions are juxtaposed with highly realistic depictions of ships, the oceanic environment, and open-water naval engagements. Affirming Birch’s ability to achieve this difficult balance, Thomas S. Cummings, one of the founders of the National Academy of Design (to which Birch was elected as an Honorary Member in 1833) extolled the artist’s “freshness of atmosphere and clarity of waves.” Birch’s success in portraying many of the major nautical confrontions of the War of 1812 resulted in his being commissoned by ship owners and naval captains to profile important individual vessels — including the U.S.S. Independence, the first ship-of-the-line to be commissioned by the U.S. Navy —  and in doing so he became, according to art historian Stephanie Munsing, “the first American ship portraitist.” (As such, his paintings in this area were often copied by artists in both America and Europe.) Later, Birch would produce dramatic scenes of shipwrecks and perilous adventures at sea rooted in his action-oriented marine artistry, a mix of real and imagined visual narratives elucidating the often heroic struggle of human beings against the ferocity of nature. It is believed by many that Birch’s ability to effectively communicate the power and terror of the sea may have influenced the work in this area by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who almost certainly was aware of Birch’s important 1837 painting, The Shipwreck, based on Scottish poet William Falconer’s (1732-1769) famous poem of the same name. The quality and impact of Birch's work in this vein has moved Kathleen A. Foster, the Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to call Birch “the first great tempest painter in the United States.”

Birch’s acumen at rendering highly accurate topographical details — present in his early work for Birch’s Views of Philadelphia as well as his maritime imagery — became an important artistic as well as historical feature of his later work, which consisted of landscapes, seascapes, and views of country estates (such as Point Breeze, the New Jersey home of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled king of Naples and Spain). Birch’s settings ranged from the mid-Atlantic region up through the entirety of New England, and included the Hudson River, the Hudson River Valley, the coastlines of Massachusetts and Maine, and even an early view of Nantucket, Rhode Island. In his multiple scenes of the harbours in Philadelphia and New York, Birch details several famous landmarks — i.e., the steeple of Christ Church, the Old Navy Yard, and the U.S.S. Pennsylvania in Philadelphia — and gives evidence of the bustling activity present in these vital early American centers of commercial activity; furthermore, many important features of the early-nineteenth century eastern and northeastern American coastlines were catalogued for posterity in Birch’s paintings, including precise descriptions of ports, bridges, and lighthouses. In 1825 many notable American artists — including Thomas Cole, one of America’s major 19th century landscape painters and a founder of the Hudson River School of Painting — expressed deep admiration for Birch’s work after viewing it in an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, America’s oldest art museum and art school, where Birch had been Curator from 1811 to 1817 and where he regularly exhibited his work from 1811 to 1851. Soon after this 1825 exhibition, Cole (who received instruction from Birch) took a steamship up the Hudson River to paint the first landscapes of the area that would serve as a locational cornerstone for the Hudson River School’s artists. Birch’s technique — which in part used glazes and impasto to engender dramatic effects in his landscapes and seascapes — was employed by Cole and other American landscapists to generate the kind of idealization and romantizing of nature that became such an important component of the Hudson River School’s stylistic blueprint, and also served as a precursor of the important (though less famous) American Luminist movement, whose overarching, radiantly lit skies were viewed as a manifestation of the Divine. Beginning in the 1830s, Birch became one of the first American artists to produce winter scenes in rural settings, often suffusing his locales with a blanket of snow, amongst which individuals participated in a variety of winter activities. His compositions in this genre were to influence many future American artists, perhaps most importantly George Durrie (1820-1863), whose paintings were turned into popular lithographs by the American printmaking firm Currier and Ives. 

During his lifetime, Birch displayed his work at many of early America's major exhibition venues, including the aforementioned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1811-1851), the National Academy of Design (1832-1845), the American Art-Union (1838-1850), the Apollo Asssociation for the Promotion of Fine Arts (1838-1839), the American Academy (1833-1835), the Maryland Historical Society (1848-1858), the Brooklyn Art Association (1872), the Society of Artists of Pennsylvania, and the Boston Athenaeum. Today, the list of important public collections permanently holding his work includes: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Brooklyn Museum; the New York Historical Society; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Pennsylvania Historical Society; the Shelburne Museum (Vermont); the Joslyn Art Museum (Omaha, Nebraska); the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum (Hyde Park, New York); the Library Company (Philadelphia); the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Madrid, Spain); and the U.S. Naval Academy.

Thomas Birch died on January 3, 1851, in Philadelphia. Viewed today as a transformative figure in the history of American painting, Birch exerted a profound influence on the stylistic evolution of his contemporaries and of the generations that followed, with his work serving as an indispensible bridge between the Old World masters and the rapidly expanding spectrum of post-colonial art.

Written by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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