Thomas Birch, born in Warwickshire, England, immigrated with his family to America in 1794, when he was fifteen years old. Settled in Philadelphia, he began his career as apprentice and assistant to his father, William Birch, contributing drawings to plates for their Views of Philadelphia, published in 1800. William Birch, a versatile artist, was also an important early miniaturist in America, whose subjects included George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. He owned a collection of European paintings, notably marine works by Dutch artists Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen. Inspired by these artists, Thomas Birch yearned to be a marine painter. Practical considerations dictated, instead, that he launch his career in the one line of the fine arts that could support a living in the early Republic: portraiture. Though few of his early portraits are extant, it is significant that they are predominantly of people connected to either the navy or the maritime business.
Birch’s interest in landscape painting began to develop around 1806. In 1807 he was sketching on the Cape of Delaware. He was thus one of the earliest American artists to focus on landscape and marine painting. (For a brief overview of Birch’s career, see William Gerdts, Thomas Birch, exhib. cat. [Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1966]. For an evaluation of Birch’s career and influence, see William Gerdts, “Thomas Birch: America’s First Marine Artist,” The Magazine Antiques LXXXIX [April, 1966], pp. 528–34.) Birch was ideally located to pursue an interest in marine painting. By the time of the American Revolution, Philadelphia had grown from its modest beginning as a small settlement on the Delaware River to become the preeminent port in the North American colonies and the third-largest port in the British Empire, trailing only London and Liverpool. Philadelphia maintained first-place position until 1825, when it was surpassed by New York. It remains today a significant commercial and shipping hub and its Delaware shoreline counts among the largest freshwater ports in the world.