Washington County Museum of Fine Art's 'Shipwreck' painting in Philadelphia

October 19, 2012|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
  • English-born Thomas Birch (1779-1851) The Shipwreck, 1837," oil on canvas, 40 by 60 inches, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland, museum purchase, 1964.
Submitted photo

Special to The Herald-Mail

The Washington County Museum of Fine Art's important oil painting by Thomas Birch (1779 to 1851), titled "The Shipwreck," 1837, plays a pivotal role in an important exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The show opened Saturday, Sept. 22, and continues through Sunday, Dec. 16.

The exhibition, "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and 'The Life Line,'" focuses on Homer's painting, "The Life Line," and explores the making and meaning of images of rescue. The WCMFA's shipwreck painting was a perfect fit because Birch's work would have been known to Homer and the painting so effectively communicates the power and terror of the sea. The Washington County Museum of Fine Art's Birch painting was lent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to be part of this important exhibition.

Three weeks ago, a group of 41 art enthusiasts traveled on a tour with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts to Philadelphia to see the newly opened Barnes Collection in its Philadelphia Museum Parkway location. They were there to view the important exhibition, "Shipwreck," which includes Washington County's Thomas Birch painting, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 Kathleen A. Foster, The Robert L. McNeil Jr., senior curator of American Art and director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is the organizing curator. She has developed a series of exhibitions including "Shipwreck," which celebrate the great American paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection.

Homer's painting, "The Life Line" is one of their museum's most important American paintings. Soon after Homer completed the painting, it was already a phenomenal success in the eyes of the American public.

Foster's "Shipwreck!" exhibition traces the subject of disasters at sea from examples of the 16th through the late-19thcenturies when Homer's painting was completed.

In Europe, marine painting subjects emerged first as views of quiet harbors or views of fair weather oceans, but later developed views from aboard ship and finally as views of shipwrecks.  As the genre grew in popularity, ship's portraits, naval battles, and regional coastal views were added to the choices available to patrons.

By the 18th century, the shipwreck painting had acquired a predictable formula of story-telling motifs including raging winds and waters, rocky abutments and outcroppings into the water, a wrecked and sinking ship, the stranded, desperate passengers scrambling across lifelines to a rocky shore or huddled on-ship hoping for rescue, witnesses on far rock outcroppings watching the disaster and heroic male rescuers.

Many shipwreck paintings were based on actual marine disasters. Homer's "Lifeline," for example, was inspired by the grievous failures to rescue passengers in the wreck of the White Star Line RMS Atlantic in 1873.

Of the 952 people aboard, 535 perished, including all of the 156 women and all but one of the 189 children. All of the lifeboats were lost in the attempts to launch them in stormy waters. Though lifelines were used in the rescue effort, only men used this method to reach shore. The public outcry that followed this disaster included newspaper stories with vivid illustrations by artists documenting the recovery of bodies, subsequent commemorative events and works of art.

The transatlantic voyage was one that the earliest colonial immigrants to America hadbraved. Cramped below ships with few possessions allowed aboard (imagine space limits as confining as in today's airlines), passengers endured constant fear, confinement, ill health and anxious waiting. 

The decks of the earliest vessels were active working spaces for the sailors so passengers on deck would have been a nuisance or a danger, and they were only allowed above decks for short periods during times of anchor and quiet weather. The fear of storms, shipwrecks and other calamities on sea were common among immigrants, as portrayed through letters back home, newspaper accounts, and in works of art and literature. William Shakespeare's "Tempest," for example, was based on the true story of an America-bound ship wreck.   

In the 19th-century, poets, as well as artists, embraced the theme of shipwreck. Epic poems, sometimes illustrated, were published as highly popular books.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' Thomas Birch painting is prominently featured in the opening gallery of the "Shipwreck" exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it helps to introduce the artistic tradition of depicting catastrophes at sea. Thomas Birch, as Foster wrote in the exhibition's catalogue, "became the first great tempest painter in the United States." He immigrated to Philadelphia in 1794 with his father William, also a painter. In America, he became prosperous, first as a painter of scenes from the War of 1812, then with a complete offering of marine painting subjects. 

His painting, "The Shipwreck, 1837," was likely based on a literary source, Scottish poet and sailor, William Falconer's poem, "The Shipwreck," first published in 1762, and widely known both in Europe and America. Falconer was one of three survivors of a shipwreck and the description of the three struggling to safely using the broken mast from the ship matches the pictorial story told the Thomas Birch painting.  

Thomas Birch's "Shipwreck" is no stranger to the Philadelphia Museum of Art's galleries. It was loaned from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in 1976 for the Bicentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art. Conservation of the painting in 2006, through funds received from the friends and family of Emma Lou and Dr. George Comstock, in honor of Dr. Comstock's 90th birthday, ensures that the painting will continue to be enjoyed by future generations in Hagerstown and beyond.  

The loan of works of art from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' collections to other national museums is a regular occurrence and supports the museum's educational mission, regional impact, and national standing. 

Currently, the museum's Philip Guston painting, "Portrait of Shanah," is part of a traveling exhibition "Art Interrupted: 'Advancing American Art' and the Politics of Cultural Diplomacy" to the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in partnership with the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, through spring of 2014. The exhibition and catalogue is funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' "Portrait of Mrs. Gough, 1777,"  by John Hessselius will be part of the exhibition "Painters and Paintings in the American South, 1564-1790" by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's Juli Granger Curator, Carolyn J. Weekley, at the DeWitt Wallace Museum, Williamsburg, Va., from March 2013 through September 2014.

Rebecca Massie Lane is director of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. To find out more about the museum, visit

Submitted photo

English-born Thomas Birch (1779-1851) "The Shipwreck, 1837," oil on canvas, 40 by 60 inches, Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland, museum purchase, 1964.

To learn more ...

For information on the exhibition, "Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and "The Life Line,'" and visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art visit their website at

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