Thomas Birch was among the most talented painters of the early republic who specialized in marine paintings and topographical views. During the early nineteenth century, artists such as Birch drew inspiration from the mercantile and commercial activity that centered around the rapidly expanding cities along the mid-Atlantic coast.
In The Battery and Harbor, New York Birch focuses on the marine activity in the harbor as well as the human activity along the Battery of lower Manhattan. Birch painted the composition at a fascinating time in the Battery's history, as during the first decade of the century this part of the city was undergoing significant change. For example Battery Walk, shown in the foreground, was laid out in 1805, and Castle Williams, seen in the harbor at the left of the compositon, was built at the western end of Governor's Island between 1809 and 1810.
Birch most likely executed The Battery and Harbor, New York between 1811 and 1812. He must have painted the composition after 1810, as the fence in the foreground of the composition was completed circa 1811, a date established by an extant sketch of the subject by Paul Svinin, a Russian artist. However, the work may have been completed as late as 1812, as the figures in the foreground include a Naval officer accompanied by two women, one of whom wears a black mourning veil, suggesting she has been widowed as a result of the War of 1812.
The Battery and Harbor, New York reflects many artistic influences that were current among artists of the early nineteenth century. As an apprentice and son of the English engraver William Russell Birch, Thomas Birch was aware of the seventeenth-century Dutch tradition of marine painting as well as the dramatic shipwreck scenes of Claude-Joseph Vernet. The Battery and Harbor, New York combines both traditions. Birch's great talent, however, lay in his ability to adapt these models to American subject matter, opening the composition to suggest the great qualities of American light and space. The low vantage point in the foreground and the light filled sky in the distance are indicative of these American characteristics.
Birch's working method often included the use of preparatory sketches, in which the artist executed drawings on the spot and would then use them in the studio to create a finished composition. Birch's painting method for The Battery and Harbor, New York matches this pattern, as a related graphite drawing is in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The lightness and balance displayed in the composition of The Battery and Harbor, New York reflect the graceful qualities of the neoclassical age during which Birch painted. The artist has arranged the figures in discreet groupings, as they linger or promenade across Battery Walk; these groupings in turn echo the arrangement of the ships anchored in the distance. The fresh palette that includes pastel shades of blue and pink fills the composition with an uncommon brightness and clarity which prefigures the great luminist canvases of mid-century.