Birmelin attended the Cooper Union and Skowhegan art schools and received B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Yale University. A 1960 Fulbright grant followed by a Prix de Rome in 1961 enabled him to study for a year at the Slade School in London and to spend three years at the American Academy in Rome. A realist with a fascination for existentialist literature, Birmelin is perhaps best known today for his panic-tinged New York crowd scenes. He draws his imagery from the disparate environments of New York City, where he teaches, and his summer home on Deer Isle, Maine. Birmelin controls visual experience through viewpoint: the panoramic sweep of his light-suffused landscapes provides the serenity of distance, while in the crowd scenes he crops images and truncates people at picture edges to create an immediacy that perfectly coincides with the compelling urgency of his subjects.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1987)