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American Paintings and Sculpture
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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
PrevNext2 of 2
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
Artist, attributed to: Thomas Birch, American, born England, 1779–1851
Subject: James Lawrence, American, 1781–1813

Captain James Lawrence (1781–1813)

between 1810 and 1813

Watercolor on ivory

2 11/16 × 2 in. (6.8 × 5.1 cm)
Gift of Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch and Alvin Deutsch, LL.B. 1958, in honor of Kathleen Luhrs

During the War of 1812, James Lawrence earned a promotion to the rank of captain after defeating the British brig Peacock off the coast of South America. Later in the war, as commander of the Chesapeake, he engaged the English frigate Shannon on June 1, 1813. Mortally wounded, Lawrence gained eternal fame when he directed, “Don’t give up the ship.” His heroic death inspired numerous popular engravings. This miniature presents Lawrence in civilian dress, whereas the ship in the background subtly suggests that he was off at sea. During five years of marriage, he spent only a few months at home; for his wife, Julia, wearing his portrait might have eased the pain of separation. The hairwork on this locket’s reverse represents a tangible remnant of Lawrence’s body, treasured as a family memento both before and after his death. Such portraits embody the dramas of love and loss inherent in miniatures.

America’s first marine painter, Thomas Birch immigrated to Philadelphia from England with his father, enamelist William Birch, in 1794. After training as an engraver and assisting his father with a picture book, entitled The City of Philadelphia (1800), the younger Birch took up portraiture. Between 1812 and 1817, Birch oversaw the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, frequently copying European artworks held under his care. Specializing in paintings of seascapes, naval battles of the War of 1812, and portraits of marine captains, Birch infused a romantic undertone into his precise renderings. Appropriately patriotic for the era, these works drew praise from collectors, critics, and fellow artists. Birch’s expertise as a painter of seascapes, naval battles, and sea captains informs the miniature, in which Lawrence’s tilted head mirrors the rocking suggested by the boat in the background, creating a satisfyingly unified image. The precision reflects the artist’s training as an engraver, while the painterly, abstracted quality of the seascape reveals Birch’s contribution to the development of the romantic landscape in America.

Made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Not on view
19th century
Miniatures - Jewelry

Edward Grosvenor Paine; sold to Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch and Alvin Deutsch, New York


“Acquisitions, July 1, 2006–June 30, 2007,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2007): 191, ill.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.