Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (c. 1814) will be useful in the study of:
- American and national identity
- America in the world
- The War of 1812
- American history before the Civil War
- American naval history
- History of the Great Lakes
- The expansion of American territory and influence
- Westward expansion
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- Discuss Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the nineteenth century
- Discuss the motivations behind the War of 1812
- Discuss the implications of the American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie
- Discuss the role of images in the relation of important events
1. Look closely at the painting
Look closely at Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)
Questions to ask:
- Describe the painting. What has the artist emphasized?
- How has the artist organized the painting?
- What details seem as though they might be important?
- How can we tell this is a battle?
2. Watch the video
The video “‘We have met the enemy and they are ours’: Thomas Birch, Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie” is a little over five minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie are provided to support the video.
3. Read about the painting and its historical context
News of the day, in a traditional form
Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie is not a history painting — it is showing a contemporary event. The large (167.64 x 245.11 cm) canvas would have been like viewing the battle on a big screen TV or going to the movies. It was a source of information as well as a form of entertainment. The kind of painting that Birch has created is what is known as a marine painting, and it is part of a tradition of marine painting that the Dutch developed in the seventeenth century as a celebration of their country’s myriad ties to the sea.
The Dutch celebrated commerce and the pleasures of the sea, but also commemorated important battles that helped define the small country’s place in the world. Birch has created a painting in this spirit, rendering the boats in naturalistic detail and the conditions of Lake Erie in a realistic manner, but also celebrating his country’s victory. Birch wanted to make his painting as realistic as possible. Not a sailor himself, Perry used first-hand accounts, letters, military sketches, and journalistic accounts to get the details of the battle and of the ships correct.
A key victory
The Battle of Lake Erie may have turned the tide in the War of 1812. Despite involving fewer than 20 ships, the battle had far-reaching implications and would help shape what would become an American empire. It was a decisive victory, and Lake Erie was a key location, serving as a connector between British Canada and the United States. The war was fought partially for control of rivers, seas, and lakes, the conduits of international commerce. The young United States would step out onto the world stage with their victory in the War of 1812, now having access to these important trade routes.
The British Navy was a feared force, and with good reason. The British Fleet was the largest in the world. One thing this painting celebrates is the United States building up its navy to be able to beat the British, but one reason the United States was successful was that the British were fighting more than one war and their resources were stretched thin. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe demanded a great deal of their attention, and the British military was more focused on defeating Napoleon than fighting in North America. Nonetheless, the painting is meant to show high drama, of the turning of the tide in the battle that led to victory when all had seemed lost.
The U.S. victory on Lake Erie and in the War of 1812 in general would have a disastrous effect on Native Americans. A confederacy of tribes, led by Tecumseh, had been allied with the British, and had fought against American settlement of their lands. With the defeat and withdrawal of the British, U.S. settlers began to push into the confederacy’s lands. This expansion was part of the larger legacy of the push westward and its negative effects on Native Americans.
4. Discussion questions
- Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie is a depiction of current events, but at the same time modern viewers can have perspective on how the painting is connected to a web of actions and consequences that would have far-reaching effects over time. Take another work of art and discuss how it is connected to the present in which it was made, but also to historical events that came after it.
- Birch used written accounts to help make his painting. Which do you think carries more truth, a written description or a visual one? What strengths and weaknesses does each form have?
5. Research questions
- Download the exhibition brochure for the National Gallery exhibition Water, Wind, and Waves: Marine Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. Looking at the paintings that are included in the brochure, compare them to Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. What examples can you give to show how Birch was influenced by the Dutch tradition of marine painting?
- Using the timeline of the War of 1812, find other visual records of the events of the war. How do they compare to Birch’s painting? Do they use the same level of realism? Do they appear to be unbiased depictions of the truth? Why or why not?