Thomas Birch (American, 1779–1851),
oil on canvas, 20 x 30 in.; 50.8 x 76.2 cm
Museum purchase, 1964.618
Before the War of 1812, American painting generally consisted of portraiture. After the war, portrayals of naval battles and heroes fed Americas growing self-confidence and pride, and seascapes became popular. Birch responded to this new enthusiasm in his many paintings of naval engagements, and he thereafter achieved recognition through his marine pictures. At first simply incorporating small marine scenes into the backgrounds of his portraits, by 1820 Birch had established himself solely as a painter of seascapes. The painting St. Eustatia is of an island near Puerto Rico in the Netherlands Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. During the Napoleonic Wars, these were British territories, but they were returned to the Dutch in 1816 after the wars. Birch may have relied on prints for his conception of the scene.
Birch's typical seascapes differed from those of his contemporaries, such as Michael Corne, Robert Salmon, and, later, James Butterworth. These seascapists worked within the British tradition, with its stiff, formal quality in contrast to Birch's broader and warmer style; however, St. Eustatia is an exception. Its accurate and tightly controlled details are combined with a flatness of form with less compositional unity. The individual boats are awkwardly drawn and arranged, and the frigate's stern is cropped, apparently to make room for the seaport. While the frigate is carefully drawn, it is out of context within the surrounding landscape, which suggests that the painting might be a commissioned portrait of the frigate. In contrast to other works by Birch, St. Eustatia is simple, lacking atmosphere and movement, and its execution is flat and linear. The picture derives its charm from Birch's sensitivity to light, seen in the silvery glints on the edges of the sails, the water's transparency, and the lovely light and haze over the island in the background.