View of Philadelphia Harbor is one of a series of topographical views that Thomas Birch painted between 1835 and about 1840 documenting the varied traffic on the Delaware River. The canvas is chiefly composed of two horizontal bands—water in the foreground, sky above—divided by a narrow strip detailing the Philadelphia shoreline. In each of these three elements Birch offers a virtuoso performance of his mastery of his medium. The sky, taking up more than half the canvas, is a romantic painter’s tour de force, with fluffy pink, grey, and white clouds, harbingers of sunset, set against a cerulean sky.
The Delaware River offered Birch an opportunity to demonstrate his skill in painting water. The grey/green of the river’s water is punctuated by a sailor’s encyclopedia of watercraft, representing the full range of business in the harbor. Indeed, the chief differences among the canvases in the series are Birch’s choice of boats and their placement in the composition. In the foreground of View of Philadelphia Harbor is a dinghy, its two-man crew engaged in either furling or unfurling its lone sail. To its right Birch renders one of his favorite vessels, a fully rigged merchant ship. In the center left distance, smoke trails from the two funnel stacks of a sidewheel paddle boat identified from similar canvases as the steamboat Robert Morris. Built in 1830 in Philadelphia by the Baltimore Union Line, the boat carried passengers, freight, and the U.S. mail between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The decks of the boat are crowded with passengers. On the far right is another paddle-wheel steam ferry, transporting people and, notably, a horse on deck. The river is dotted with a variety of craft, including many sailing vessels at anchor near the Philadelphia shore, their bare masts setting a screen of vertical lines before the horizontal ribbon of shoreline. Birch kept on hand an inventory of detailed drawings of boats ready to insert into his oil paintings.
The narrow strip of land separating water from sky offers a visual primer on the economic and political circumstances that made Philadelphia a great city. Birch’s detail of the shoreline is tiny, but lapidary in its precision. A line of ships at anchor delineates the shore, their masts outlined against the sky. On the left side of the canvas stands the tall brown cylinder of Sparks Shot Tower, opened on July 4, 1808. One hundred forty-two feet in height and constructed of brick, it was built by the plumbers Thomas Sparks, John Bishop, and James Clement in order to manufacture shot. Molten lead poured from the top of the tower, passed through a mesh of sieves with graduated openings, falling into water below and forming uniformly spherical shot. The tower supplied ammunition originally for hunting, but later for the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812 and for Federal forces in the Civil War. While it ceased its original function in 1913, it remains a Philadelphia landmark, now part of a public park with the base serving as a recreational space.
To the right of the tower is the Philadelphia Navy Yard, with two long ship-building shops extending into the water. Originally Humphrey’s Navy Yard in Southwark, the area had been part of New Sweden. The two navy yard buildings in Birch’s painting were constructed in 1822. The shipyard remained in Southwark until 1875. Barely visible to the right of the navy yard is the spire of Old Swede’s Church (originally Lutheran, but since 1845, the Episcopalian congregation Gloria Dei). Built between 1698 and 1700, with the spire added around 1733, it is the oldest church in Pennsylvania. Further north, Birch includes Christ Church, built between 1727 and 1744, in a Georgian style based on the work of Christopher Wren in London. The steeple, added in 1754, made the Church, until 1810, the tallest building in North America.