Born in 1797 in Warwickshire, England, Thomas Birch moved with his family to the Philadelphia area at the age of fifteen. His early career was spent assisting his father, William Birch, an artist, and trying his hand at portraiture. His keen interest in landscape painting led him in that direction and by 1811 he was entirely devoted to that genre. In fact, at "the first exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, [Birch] had established himself in the field of landscape and seascape painting, [and] none of his contributions to that show were portraits. Already, in fact, he was essaying nearly all the various forms of scene painting for which he was to become known. There was the continuation of the tradition of portraying estates, and also the painting of Philadelphia views." (W.H. Gerdts, Thomas Birch, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1966, p. 12)
A painting of one of Philadelphia's technological advances would have been of great interest to that city's art patrons and citizens alike. "Constructed in 1808, the Chain (or Wire) Bridge spanned the Schuylkill River near the present City Line Bridge until 1816, when it collapsed following a heavy snowfall. At the time, the 306-foot-long bridge was celebrated as an engineering marvel. . . . . Together with the elegant country estates such as Lemon Hill, Sedgeley, and Woodlands that dotted the banks of the Schuylkill, these achievements confirmed the intellect and refinement of the nation's citizens." (T. Lewis in American Paintings, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1998, n.p.)
Thomas Birch, whose biography is intimately linked with the history of Philadelphia, was considered one of the first citizens of that city. During his lifetime, he "was popular in Philadelphia, with collectors, critics and with his fellow artists. John Neagle, the portraitist, not only painted Birch's portrait, but indicated in writing his admiration for Birch; and testimonials also exist from Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale and others. The early genre painter, John Lewis Krimmel, was also a friend of Birch. He was well enough known to have works commissioned, for he had no serious contender when it came to the depiction of a marine scene, and was well-known among the citizens of Philadelphia." (Thomas Birch, p. 17)
A letter from Dr. William H. Gerdts, discussing the painting, accompanies this lot.