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"We have met the enemy and they are ours."

The painting "Perry's Victory on Lake Erie" by Thomas Birch captures a key moment in the War of 1812. It depicts a decisive American victory over the British, marking a turning point in the war and signaling the start of westward expansion. The painting's details and composition reflect the chaos and drama of the sea battle. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Steven] We're in the rotunda an extraordinary 19th-century building, part of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, looking at a very large painting of an important historical sea battle, Perry's Victory on Lake Erie by Thomas Birch. This is not history painting. This is a painting of a contemporary event. - [Anna] It's like the largest TV screen you could ever imagine. (Steven laughing) It's like going to the movies. That's what seeing this painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1814 would have been like. Seeing the news on a big screen right before your eyes. - [Steven] And what we're looking at is the battle, that according to some historians, turned the tide of the War of 1812. - [Anna] This was a very decisive victory for the Americans. Lake Erie is a connector between British Canada and the United States. And one of the things that the War of 1812 was about, was control of rivers, seas and lakes. These were the conduits of trade, these were the conduits of empire. It is a moment when the United States builds up their Navy strong enough to beat the British fleet, the biggest naval power in the world. This is part of the broader Napoleonic Wars. Wars that spanned continents. So it's important to realize that even though it is a decisive victory for the United States, it marks a tragic turning point for Native Americans because this battle precedes the death of the great leader Tecumseh, who organized this confederacy of Native American peoples in what was the Northwest Territories. And Native Americans, including Tecumseh, had been allied with the British. So when the Americans win this battle, they then start pushing west into the Northwest Territories. So this moment in 1814 is a really decisive moment in the push to westward expansion and growing beyond the original colonies that hug the Eastern Seaboard to go west and gradually take over more and more Native American lands. - [Steven] The composition of this painting is unexpected. The main fighting is taking place in the center, but in the distance and slightly to the left. The ship that we're focused on, the Lawrence, is a ship that's almost been abandoned. It's been disabled. You can see the cannon shot in the sails. - [Anna] It is almost a ghost ship by this point. The rigging is torn, the sails are falling apart, the American flag still flies prominently and proudly in the front of the canvas, but Perry has abandoned this ship and he's moved on, moving into the middle distance. We see smoke, red flame from cannon, and we see the American flag rising out of that smoke, and it's above these two British union jacks, which are sinking closer to the horizon line. We're at the turning point, when all had seemed lost, we're about to claim victory. - [Steven] I look how the artist is willing to obscure the very subject of the painting the ships. It redirects our attention to the confusion and the ambiguity that takes place on the sea during war. - [Anna] This painting was painted right after the battle. So he would have had firsthand accounts, he would have read letters, he would have read journalistic accounts and he probably would have seen military sketches. - [Steven] What was most important, I think, for Birch is that he got the details right. Although Birch himself did not have experience on the sea, he had enough experience looking at boats that he made sure that he got the rigging correct, that he got the types of boats correct, that he got the specific boats themselves correct. - [Anna] But it is the dramatic smoke from the cannons, the waves. You can almost feel the cold air of Lake Erie. And then, beautiful clouds. - [Steven] Birch is drawing on a tradition of marine painting that is hundreds of years old by this time, and that comes out of the Dutch tradition. And when I look at this painting, and I see the immense amount of the canvas, it's given over to the sky, I can't help but think of Dutch landscape painting. - [Anna] This battle scene shows that the United States is going to be a player on the world stage. They're not just going to be clustered around New York and the burgeoning in Washington DC. They are gonna stretch north to the trade routes of Canada, they're gonna stretch west into Native American territories, and they're going to take over Spanish territories to the south. - [Steven] So this relatively small battle on Lake Erie, with less than 20 ships, has ramifications between the United States and Britain, between Britain and France, and between the United States and the Native American nations. The importance of this battle cannot be overstated. - [Anna] And a lot of people do not realize the importance of the War of 1812 to shaping what would become an American empire. (gentle piano music)