Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

Bird in "the West"
Bird's western travels were important adventures for him; indeed, all of his travels gave a resonance to his work throughout his life. They served as occasions for promoting and maintaining friendships with people whom, in the nature of things, he could not normally see face to face. They served as a mechanism for forging a closer relationship--at least temporarily!--with such professional colleagues as Edwin Forrest, with whom Dr. Bird travelled in 1833. They also provided him with experience of and a kind of "finger-feel" for the vast American landscape that he would write about till he stopped writing altogether.

A modern reader needs to recall that, in the 1820s and 1830s, "the West" was a lot closer to Philadelphia, in a literal geographical sense, than it is likely to seem today: even mid-Pennsylvanian scenes such as those Bird was to draw from the Juniata River reflect a sense that these are, in some senses, "new" places where settlement has only begun. The middle states of Alabama, Kentucky (scene of Nick of the Woods), Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, and--more conventionally--even western New York, as evidenced by "Niagara" (seen here), were Bird's frontier; memories of their frontier heritage were still alive and fresh.

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[IMAGE]
"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833"
Watercolor, unsigned

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Men on a raft, a dinghy loaded with parcels in the middle distance, and a sidewheeler (a river steamboat) passing them in the distance, were all visual subjects to which Dr. Bird frequently returned. They were in some sense already conventional; George Caleb Bingham, for example, is painting much better-known scenes of the same sort at about the same time, teaching more "part-time" artists such as Bird how to see and what to draw in the new country they were all exploring. The mat covers Dr. Bird's notes, to the right of this watercolor, in which he comments on color values in the scene as a sort of aide memoire in the event that he returns to it at a later date for fuller treatment.

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[IMAGE]
"On the Mississippi--May 1833"
Watercolor, unsigned

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

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[IMAGE]
"Mississippi"
Watercolor, undated, and unsigned

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

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[IMAGE]
"View on the Mississippi--May 1833"
Watercolor, unsigned

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

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[IMAGE]
"Niagara 1833"
Watercolor, unsigned

Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

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