William Russell Birch (1755--1834) and the beginnings of the American picturesque

Emily Tyson Cooperman, University of Pennsylvania


William Birch was among the group of British artists who emigrated to the United States in the 1790s who brought with them a strong interest in landscape representation and the picturesque, popular subjects in Britain, and a belief in the important place of the professional artist in society. Birch's work and career correspond to the early stages of the “naturalization” of these ideas into American culture. He had absorbed these notions in the circle of Sir Joshua Reynolds, where he primarily painted miniature enamels. This specialty relegated Birch to a secondary position as a practitioner of a “minor art” and as a “copyist.” He aspired to more, however, and published his first picturesque views, the Délices de la Grande Bretagne, in 1791, a book of engravings after the landscape paintings of his London contemporaries. Birch emigrated to Philadelphia in 1794 after the death of Reynolds and his most important British patrons; there he discovered opportunities previously unavailable to him. He issued the first book of American views, The City of Philadelphia ... in 1800; several of his fellow immigrants unsuccessfully attempted such publications. Birch was unusual in expressing American values of democratic, collective achievement through a British medium. The patronage for this work reveals the interests of wealthy Americans in the period. Due to the association of landscape representation with garden design, the success of the City of Philadelphia led to commissions for landscape gardens, and to his final set of views, The Country Seats of the United States (1808). Among other things, the Country Seats promoted his own garden designs. While the City of Philadelphia successfully merged British and American values, the Country Seats did not, and failed to find as wide an audience. Many of Birch's ideas about landscape representation, country homes, and gardening expressed in the Country Seats and in his autobiography were crucial to American artists and designers later in the nineteenth century, but Birch did not present them in a way that appealed to contemporary viewers.

Subject Area

Art History|Landscaping|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Cooperman, Emily Tyson, "William Russell Birch (1755--1834) and the beginnings of the American picturesque" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9953517.