Robert Montgomery Bird

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Robert Montgomery Bird

Writer and Artist
Loafer

Curated by Daniel Traister
Curator for Research Services
Department of Special Collections

The Library and the University are grateful for the generosity of Dr. Bird's family, especially that of the present Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird, who have loaned us his art works and some additional materials for public exhibition. Without their willingness to allow these materials to be seen—most for the first timethis exhibition would have been unthinkable.

The majority of Dr. Bird's printed books, literary manuscripts, and correspondence seen here come from Penn's own Library collections butas the gifts, extending over many years, of several generations of Dr. Bird's descendantsthey too testify to the ongoing generosity of his family.

This exhibition has benefitted also from the ongoing interest and support of Michael T. Ryan, Director of Special Collections. That it looks as good as it does is due to the exceptional work of Greg Bear, exhibition coordinator for the Department of Special Collections.

Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird's University is pleased by this occasion to mount an exhibition that shows how much remains, even at this late date, to be learned about his activities in fields he is not generally known to have explored. It is no small additional benefit of this exhibition that, by also looking at his writing career, it shows how much sheer pleasure Dr. Bird continues to provide, both as author and as artist.

 

 

Introduction

Robert M. Bird
A. Newsam, from a daguerreotype by M. A. Root
"Robert M. Bird"
Philadelphia: P. S. Duval, [n.d.]
Lithograph
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Robert Montgomery Bird (1805/6-1854) was a writer of considerable note. Born in New Castle, Delaware, one hundred and ninety years ago (February 5, 1805 or 1806), he was raised there and in Philadelphia, and entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1824. He graduated from Penn's Medical School and College of Pharmacy in 1827. As a medical student, he was active in literary societies and as a fledgling playwright.

He practiced medicine for a year after graduation, giving it up in order to write. By 1830, Edwin Forrest, the greatest American tragic actor and theatrical impresario of the era, had accepted one of his plays. For the next seven years, Dr. Bird wrote for Forrest while also publishing poetry, fiction, and essays. In 1837, he broke with Forrest, became editor of the American Monthly Magazine, and married Mary Mayer. Their son, Frederick Mayer Bird, was born a bit more than a year later.

Dr. Bird spent the 1840s uncertain about his future and suffering briefly from mental illness. He tried a variety of fields: he farmed on Maryland's Eastern Shore; returned to medicine as a medical school professor; wrote a campaign biography for Zachary Taylor; considered a possible political career; sought a position with the Smithsonian Institution; became a bank director; and assumed an interest in the North American Review, with which he eventually stayed, while revising a novel for a new edition and (perhaps) revising other works, as well.

If this were all, Dr. Bird might now merit only occasional recall as an antebellum American man of letters. But there is more. When, in the 1840s, he returned to medicine as Professor of the Institutes of Medicine and Materia Medica at the Pennsylvania Medical College, his scientific interests found an additional outlet in "sun-painting," or photography. This work remained completely unknown until 1992, when the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired an archive documenting Bird's photographic experiments during the early 1850s.

The present exhibition reveals yet another aspect of Dr. Bird's creative life: his art. Even as a young man, Bird drew and sketched; some surviving works date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions of Philadelphia, America, and Europe garnered during many travels. These works survive in the care of Bird's family. The core of what we show on this occasion, they display a freshness and vivacity of vision clearly occasioned by Bird's genuine excitement in the landscapes and figures he took such pleasure in depicting. Their excitement is all the greater because they are, to this day, essentially unknown.

Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird—"a man of high and exalted intelligence," according to his obituaristdied in January of 1854.

More American Views

Juanita

 

Here again, Dr. Bird seems to signify that, in 1853, he revisited a work originally produced in the 1830s. Lack of obvious evidence forbids any certainty that the painting on the right is a finished 1853 version of the older sketch on the left, although the added 1853 date on the other version is suggestive of reconsideration; on the other hand, it is at least clear that these two works are less polished and more polished versions of the same Juniata River scene.

moonrise
"Twilight from Moonrise. RMB—1826"
Watercolor
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

This evocative sceneearly evening, the moon just rising over the waterwas painted when Bird was still a student at Penn. The final image exhibited on this occasion, it is shown here together with works from the 1820s and the 1830s, as well as with works bearing suggestions that they represent revisions from the 1850s. Its technique is less fluent than what Dr. Bird displays in his later work. Nonetheless, it shows the consistency of Bird's interests in certain visual themes throughout his life. Perhaps more importantly, it showsand this at a very early datethe same sense his later works show: Bird's quite literal enchantment by an American landscape whose beauty he, along with others of his artistic contemporaries, found glowing.

More American Views

Juanita

 

Here again, Dr. Bird seems to signify that, in 1853, he revisited a work originally produced in the 1830s. Lack of obvious evidence forbids any certainty that the painting on the right is a finished 1853 version of the older sketch on the left, although the added 1853 date on the other version is suggestive of reconsideration; on the other hand, it is at least clear that these two works are less polished and more polished versions of the same Juniata River scene.

moonrise
"Twilight from Moonrise. RMB—1826"
Watercolor
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

This evocative sceneearly evening, the moon just rising over the waterwas painted when Bird was still a student at Penn. The final image exhibited on this occasion, it is shown here together with works from the 1820s and the 1830s, as well as with works bearing suggestions that they represent revisions from the 1850s. Its technique is less fluent than what Dr. Bird displays in his later work. Nonetheless, it shows the consistency of Bird's interests in certain visual themes throughout his life. Perhaps more importantly, it showsand this at a very early datethe same sense his later works show: Bird's quite literal enchantment by an American landscape whose beauty he, along with others of his artistic contemporaries, found glowing.

More American Views

Juanita

 

Here again, Dr. Bird seems to signify that, in 1853, he revisited a work originally produced in the 1830s. Lack of obvious evidence forbids any certainty that the painting on the right is a finished 1853 version of the older sketch on the left, although the added 1853 date on the other version is suggestive of reconsideration; on the other hand, it is at least clear that these two works are less polished and more polished versions of the same Juniata River scene.

moonrise
"Twilight from Moonrise. RMB—1826"
Watercolor
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

This evocative sceneearly evening, the moon just rising over the waterwas painted when Bird was still a student at Penn. The final image exhibited on this occasion, it is shown here together with works from the 1820s and the 1830s, as well as with works bearing suggestions that they represent revisions from the 1850s. Its technique is less fluent than what Dr. Bird displays in his later work. Nonetheless, it shows the consistency of Bird's interests in certain visual themes throughout his life. Perhaps more importantly, it showsand this at a very early datethe same sense his later works show: Bird's quite literal enchantment by an American landscape whose beauty he, along with others of his artistic contemporaries, found glowing.

More American Views

Juanita

 

Here again, Dr. Bird seems to signify that, in 1853, he revisited a work originally produced in the 1830s. Lack of obvious evidence forbids any certainty that the painting on the right is a finished 1853 version of the older sketch on the left, although the added 1853 date on the other version is suggestive of reconsideration; on the other hand, it is at least clear that these two works are less polished and more polished versions of the same Juniata River scene.

moonrise
"Twilight from Moonrise. RMB—1826"
Watercolor
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

This evocative sceneearly evening, the moon just rising over the waterwas painted when Bird was still a student at Penn. The final image exhibited on this occasion, it is shown here together with works from the 1820s and the 1830s, as well as with works bearing suggestions that they represent revisions from the 1850s. Its technique is less fluent than what Dr. Bird displays in his later work. Nonetheless, it shows the consistency of Bird's interests in certain visual themes throughout his life. Perhaps more importantly, it showsand this at a very early datethe same sense his later works show: Bird's quite literal enchantment by an American landscape whose beauty he, along with others of his artistic contemporaries, found glowing.

Bird as Artist

Even as a young man, Bird actively produced sketches and drawings. Some surviving works may date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions garnered during travel and Bird also portrays nearby surroundings, friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may have served as visual aides memoires of his travels but also had value for him in their own right. They certainly have such value for their 1990s viewers.

Although Bird never made art his career, he was much more than casually interested in it. He began formal study in drawing at 15 as a student of Jeremy Coxe in Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Mayer, studied with American portrait painter Thomas Sully and painted for many years, even if her output remained largely within the family circle rather than for public consumption.

The particular form that Dr. Bird's scientific interests took when, in the 1850s, he turned his attention to photography, offering additional evidence of artistic interests. Medicine and science were both Bird's profession, as writing and art were not, and seem also to have been his recurrent if inconsistently exercised passion. They found an unexpected outlet, late in Bird's life, in photography. In 1992, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired almost 200 prints, negatives, and manuscripts that document Bird's photographic experiments. They date from the early 1850s until shortly before his untimely death in 1854, when he was not yet fifty years old, and suggest a possible intersection of his scientific interests with one of his earlier extra-literary interests. Could he have seen photography as an alternative route to the depiction of nature his drawings and paintings also attempt?

When they are dated at all, Bird's works occasionally bear dates from both the 1820s or the 1830s and the 1850s. Such double dates may record revisions of older examples of his art works when he was newly excited by his simultaneous engagement with new photographic art forms. (He also revised Nick of the Woods during these years.) Might work on photography have encouraged him to reconsider his older, more traditionally-produced art works? As one speculative example of what reconsideration might actually have meant, some works we see now in full color might have been, when first created in the 1820s and '30s, far more cursorily colored, almost literal aides memoires and nothing more. We know that Bird did revisit older art works, just as he revisited his writings, for this exhibition contains the occasional reworking of the same scene; moreover, some manuscript annotations (indicating, for example, proper color values in scenes) survive to suggest that Bird put notes on early versions of works to assist him when he came back to them.

At present, Bird's practices remain speculative only. This exhibition opens up a major aspect of his creative life almost as unknown as his photographic experimentsand equally in need of attention. The relations between Dr. Bird's writing, his photographic experiments, and his art need scholarly investigation if they are to yield the full picture of Bird that we now know we lack and that he deserves.

"Market House, New Castle, Delaware
["Tile House, New Castle, Delaware"] 1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
Market House
["Market House, New Castle, Delaware"]
1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Robert Montgomery Bird painted the scenes from his birthplace, New Castle, Delaware, either two years before he entered Penn or while he was a medical student here. Perhaps still in his late teens, he was surely not yet twenty-one.

Bird as Artist

Even as a young man, Bird actively produced sketches and drawings. Some surviving works may date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions garnered during travel and Bird also portrays nearby surroundings, friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may have served as visual aides memoires of his travels but also had value for him in their own right. They certainly have such value for their 1990s viewers.

Although Bird never made art his career, he was much more than casually interested in it. He began formal study in drawing at 15 as a student of Jeremy Coxe in Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Mayer, studied with American portrait painter Thomas Sully and painted for many years, even if her output remained largely within the family circle rather than for public consumption.

The particular form that Dr. Bird's scientific interests took when, in the 1850s, he turned his attention to photography, offering additional evidence of artistic interests. Medicine and science were both Bird's profession, as writing and art were not, and seem also to have been his recurrent if inconsistently exercised passion. They found an unexpected outlet, late in Bird's life, in photography. In 1992, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired almost 200 prints, negatives, and manuscripts that document Bird's photographic experiments. They date from the early 1850s until shortly before his untimely death in 1854, when he was not yet fifty years old, and suggest a possible intersection of his scientific interests with one of his earlier extra-literary interests. Could he have seen photography as an alternative route to the depiction of nature his drawings and paintings also attempt?

When they are dated at all, Bird's works occasionally bear dates from both the 1820s or the 1830s and the 1850s. Such double dates may record revisions of older examples of his art works when he was newly excited by his simultaneous engagement with new photographic art forms. (He also revised Nick of the Woods during these years.) Might work on photography have encouraged him to reconsider his older, more traditionally-produced art works? As one speculative example of what reconsideration might actually have meant, some works we see now in full color might have been, when first created in the 1820s and '30s, far more cursorily colored, almost literal aides memoires and nothing more. We know that Bird did revisit older art works, just as he revisited his writings, for this exhibition contains the occasional reworking of the same scene; moreover, some manuscript annotations (indicating, for example, proper color values in scenes) survive to suggest that Bird put notes on early versions of works to assist him when he came back to them.

At present, Bird's practices remain speculative only. This exhibition opens up a major aspect of his creative life almost as unknown as his photographic experimentsand equally in need of attention. The relations between Dr. Bird's writing, his photographic experiments, and his art need scholarly investigation if they are to yield the full picture of Bird that we now know we lack and that he deserves.

"Market House, New Castle, Delaware
["Tile House, New Castle, Delaware"] 1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
Market House
["Market House, New Castle, Delaware"]
1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Robert Montgomery Bird painted the scenes from his birthplace, New Castle, Delaware, either two years before he entered Penn or while he was a medical student here. Perhaps still in his late teens, he was surely not yet twenty-one.

Bird as Artist

Even as a young man, Bird actively produced sketches and drawings. Some surviving works may date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions garnered during travel and Bird also portrays nearby surroundings, friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may have served as visual aides memoires of his travels but also had value for him in their own right. They certainly have such value for their 1990s viewers.

Although Bird never made art his career, he was much more than casually interested in it. He began formal study in drawing at 15 as a student of Jeremy Coxe in Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Mayer, studied with American portrait painter Thomas Sully and painted for many years, even if her output remained largely within the family circle rather than for public consumption.

The particular form that Dr. Bird's scientific interests took when, in the 1850s, he turned his attention to photography, offering additional evidence of artistic interests. Medicine and science were both Bird's profession, as writing and art were not, and seem also to have been his recurrent if inconsistently exercised passion. They found an unexpected outlet, late in Bird's life, in photography. In 1992, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired almost 200 prints, negatives, and manuscripts that document Bird's photographic experiments. They date from the early 1850s until shortly before his untimely death in 1854, when he was not yet fifty years old, and suggest a possible intersection of his scientific interests with one of his earlier extra-literary interests. Could he have seen photography as an alternative route to the depiction of nature his drawings and paintings also attempt?

When they are dated at all, Bird's works occasionally bear dates from both the 1820s or the 1830s and the 1850s. Such double dates may record revisions of older examples of his art works when he was newly excited by his simultaneous engagement with new photographic art forms. (He also revised Nick of the Woods during these years.) Might work on photography have encouraged him to reconsider his older, more traditionally-produced art works? As one speculative example of what reconsideration might actually have meant, some works we see now in full color might have been, when first created in the 1820s and '30s, far more cursorily colored, almost literal aides memoires and nothing more. We know that Bird did revisit older art works, just as he revisited his writings, for this exhibition contains the occasional reworking of the same scene; moreover, some manuscript annotations (indicating, for example, proper color values in scenes) survive to suggest that Bird put notes on early versions of works to assist him when he came back to them.

At present, Bird's practices remain speculative only. This exhibition opens up a major aspect of his creative life almost as unknown as his photographic experimentsand equally in need of attention. The relations between Dr. Bird's writing, his photographic experiments, and his art need scholarly investigation if they are to yield the full picture of Bird that we now know we lack and that he deserves.

"Market House, New Castle, Delaware
["Tile House, New Castle, Delaware"] 1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
Market House
["Market House, New Castle, Delaware"]
1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Robert Montgomery Bird painted the scenes from his birthplace, New Castle, Delaware, either two years before he entered Penn or while he was a medical student here. Perhaps still in his late teens, he was surely not yet twenty-one.

Bird as Artist

Even as a young man, Bird actively produced sketches and drawings. Some surviving works may date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions garnered during travel and Bird also portrays nearby surroundings, friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may have served as visual aides memoires of his travels but also had value for him in their own right. They certainly have such value for their 1990s viewers.

Although Bird never made art his career, he was much more than casually interested in it. He began formal study in drawing at 15 as a student of Jeremy Coxe in Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Mayer, studied with American portrait painter Thomas Sully and painted for many years, even if her output remained largely within the family circle rather than for public consumption.

The particular form that Dr. Bird's scientific interests took when, in the 1850s, he turned his attention to photography, offering additional evidence of artistic interests. Medicine and science were both Bird's profession, as writing and art were not, and seem also to have been his recurrent if inconsistently exercised passion. They found an unexpected outlet, late in Bird's life, in photography. In 1992, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired almost 200 prints, negatives, and manuscripts that document Bird's photographic experiments. They date from the early 1850s until shortly before his untimely death in 1854, when he was not yet fifty years old, and suggest a possible intersection of his scientific interests with one of his earlier extra-literary interests. Could he have seen photography as an alternative route to the depiction of nature his drawings and paintings also attempt?

When they are dated at all, Bird's works occasionally bear dates from both the 1820s or the 1830s and the 1850s. Such double dates may record revisions of older examples of his art works when he was newly excited by his simultaneous engagement with new photographic art forms. (He also revised Nick of the Woods during these years.) Might work on photography have encouraged him to reconsider his older, more traditionally-produced art works? As one speculative example of what reconsideration might actually have meant, some works we see now in full color might have been, when first created in the 1820s and '30s, far more cursorily colored, almost literal aides memoires and nothing more. We know that Bird did revisit older art works, just as he revisited his writings, for this exhibition contains the occasional reworking of the same scene; moreover, some manuscript annotations (indicating, for example, proper color values in scenes) survive to suggest that Bird put notes on early versions of works to assist him when he came back to them.

At present, Bird's practices remain speculative only. This exhibition opens up a major aspect of his creative life almost as unknown as his photographic experimentsand equally in need of attention. The relations between Dr. Bird's writing, his photographic experiments, and his art need scholarly investigation if they are to yield the full picture of Bird that we now know we lack and that he deserves.

"Market House, New Castle, Delaware
["Tile House, New Castle, Delaware"] 1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
Market House
["Market House, New Castle, Delaware"]
1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Robert Montgomery Bird painted the scenes from his birthplace, New Castle, Delaware, either two years before he entered Penn or while he was a medical student here. Perhaps still in his late teens, he was surely not yet twenty-one.

Bird as Artist

Even as a young man, Bird actively produced sketches and drawings. Some surviving works may date from before he turned twenty. Later works record scenes and impressions garnered during travel and Bird also portrays nearby surroundings, friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may have served as visual aides memoires of his travels but also had value for him in their own right. They certainly have such value for their 1990s viewers.

Although Bird never made art his career, he was much more than casually interested in it. He began formal study in drawing at 15 as a student of Jeremy Coxe in Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Elizabeth Mayer, studied with American portrait painter Thomas Sully and painted for many years, even if her output remained largely within the family circle rather than for public consumption.

The particular form that Dr. Bird's scientific interests took when, in the 1850s, he turned his attention to photography, offering additional evidence of artistic interests. Medicine and science were both Bird's profession, as writing and art were not, and seem also to have been his recurrent if inconsistently exercised passion. They found an unexpected outlet, late in Bird's life, in photography. In 1992, the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired almost 200 prints, negatives, and manuscripts that document Bird's photographic experiments. They date from the early 1850s until shortly before his untimely death in 1854, when he was not yet fifty years old, and suggest a possible intersection of his scientific interests with one of his earlier extra-literary interests. Could he have seen photography as an alternative route to the depiction of nature his drawings and paintings also attempt?

When they are dated at all, Bird's works occasionally bear dates from both the 1820s or the 1830s and the 1850s. Such double dates may record revisions of older examples of his art works when he was newly excited by his simultaneous engagement with new photographic art forms. (He also revised Nick of the Woods during these years.) Might work on photography have encouraged him to reconsider his older, more traditionally-produced art works? As one speculative example of what reconsideration might actually have meant, some works we see now in full color might have been, when first created in the 1820s and '30s, far more cursorily colored, almost literal aides memoires and nothing more. We know that Bird did revisit older art works, just as he revisited his writings, for this exhibition contains the occasional reworking of the same scene; moreover, some manuscript annotations (indicating, for example, proper color values in scenes) survive to suggest that Bird put notes on early versions of works to assist him when he came back to them.

At present, Bird's practices remain speculative only. This exhibition opens up a major aspect of his creative life almost as unknown as his photographic experimentsand equally in need of attention. The relations between Dr. Bird's writing, his photographic experiments, and his art need scholarly investigation if they are to yield the full picture of Bird that we now know we lack and that he deserves.

"Market House, New Castle, Delaware
["Tile House, New Castle, Delaware"] 1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
Market House
["Market House, New Castle, Delaware"]
1822? 1826?
Watercolor, untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Robert Montgomery Bird painted the scenes from his birthplace, New Castle, Delaware, either two years before he entered Penn or while he was a medical student here. Perhaps still in his late teens, he was surely not yet twenty-one.

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 relationshipat least temporarily!with such professional colleagues as Edwin Forrest, with whom Dr. Bird traveled 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, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, andmore conventionallyeven western New York, as evidenced by "Niagara" (seen below), were Bird's frontier; memories of their frontier heritage were still alive and fresh.

Niagra
"Niagra 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.

"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833"
"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833," Watercolor, unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

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 relationshipat least temporarily!with such professional colleagues as Edwin Forrest, with whom Dr. Bird traveled 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, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, andmore conventionallyeven western New York, as evidenced by "Niagara" (seen below), were Bird's frontier; memories of their frontier heritage were still alive and fresh.

Niagra
"Niagra 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.

"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833"
"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833," Watercolor, unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

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 relationshipat least temporarily!with such professional colleagues as Edwin Forrest, with whom Dr. Bird traveled 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, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, andmore conventionallyeven western New York, as evidenced by "Niagara" (seen below), were Bird's frontier; memories of their frontier heritage were still alive and fresh.

Niagra
"Niagra 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.

"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833"
"Mouth of the Tombecbee, Alabama, 1833," Watercolor, unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Bird Views America

tombec

 

The watercolor on the left is among those sketches that Dr. Bird would later revisit and "revise." The finished version appears on the right. Almost illegible on the sketch are Dr. Bird's extremely faint pencilled annotations on the surface of the work itself"white"; "light [word illegible]"; "Dark"; "light". Their presence indicates that he intended to revisit this sketch at a later date; and, as the finished version indicates, he did revisit it. By the time he did so, however, Dr. Bird found his own handwriting either illegible or so faint that he himself could not read it. Thus he added to the original title ("View on the TennesseeJune, 1833") a query to himself, clearly written at another time and with another pencil, "Tombecbee?" He was no longer sure if he had sketched the scene in Tennessee or Alabama. In June of 1833, Dr. Bird was traveling in Tennessee, going from Memphis to Nashville; his original title appears to be correct.

he old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave
"The old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave. October, 1835 ('35 + '53)"
Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Unlike the above "View on the Tennessee," this is one of those paintings where only one version survives, but a double date ("'35 + '53") suggests "revision" during the period towards the end of Dr. Bird's life when he was also conducting photographic experiments and revising Nick of the Woods, as well. The impact on his literary and artistic work of these experiments is obviously the major question that these newly revealed works in both photography and painting raise.

Bird Views America

tombec

 

The watercolor on the left is among those sketches that Dr. Bird would later revisit and "revise." The finished version appears on the right. Almost illegible on the sketch are Dr. Bird's extremely faint pencilled annotations on the surface of the work itself"white"; "light [word illegible]"; "Dark"; "light". Their presence indicates that he intended to revisit this sketch at a later date; and, as the finished version indicates, he did revisit it. By the time he did so, however, Dr. Bird found his own handwriting either illegible or so faint that he himself could not read it. Thus he added to the original title ("View on the TennesseeJune, 1833") a query to himself, clearly written at another time and with another pencil, "Tombecbee?" He was no longer sure if he had sketched the scene in Tennessee or Alabama. In June of 1833, Dr. Bird was traveling in Tennessee, going from Memphis to Nashville; his original title appears to be correct.

he old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave
"The old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave. October, 1835 ('35 + '53)"
Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Unlike the above "View on the Tennessee," this is one of those paintings where only one version survives, but a double date ("'35 + '53") suggests "revision" during the period towards the end of Dr. Bird's life when he was also conducting photographic experiments and revising Nick of the Woods, as well. The impact on his literary and artistic work of these experiments is obviously the major question that these newly revealed works in both photography and painting raise.

Bird Views America

tombec

 

The watercolor on the left is among those sketches that Dr. Bird would later revisit and "revise." The finished version appears on the right. Almost illegible on the sketch are Dr. Bird's extremely faint pencilled annotations on the surface of the work itself"white"; "light [word illegible]"; "Dark"; "light". Their presence indicates that he intended to revisit this sketch at a later date; and, as the finished version indicates, he did revisit it. By the time he did so, however, Dr. Bird found his own handwriting either illegible or so faint that he himself could not read it. Thus he added to the original title ("View on the TennesseeJune, 1833") a query to himself, clearly written at another time and with another pencil, "Tombecbee?" He was no longer sure if he had sketched the scene in Tennessee or Alabama. In June of 1833, Dr. Bird was traveling in Tennessee, going from Memphis to Nashville; his original title appears to be correct.

he old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave
"The old Cabin (Gatewood's house) at the Mammoth Cave. October, 1835 ('35 + '53)"
Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird


Unlike the above "View on the Tennessee," this is one of those paintings where only one version survives, but a double date ("'35 + '53") suggests "revision" during the period towards the end of Dr. Bird's life when he was also conducting photographic experiments and revising Nick of the Woods, as well. The impact on his literary and artistic work of these experiments is obviously the major question that these newly revealed works in both photography and painting raise.

Depicting the Region

"The privileged nineteenth-century American's experience of the sublime in the landscape occurred on the heights. The characteristic viewpoint of contemporary American landscapists traced a visual trajectory from the uplands to a scenic panorama below...The experience on the heights and its literary and aesthetic translation became assimilated to popular culture and remained and continues to remain a fundamental component of the national dream. As such, it is inseparable from nationalist ideology...[T]here is an American viewpoint in landscape painting that can be identified with this characteristic line of vision...[;] this peculiar gaze represents not only a visual line of sight but an ideological one as well... [The] view from the summit metaphorically undercut the past and blazed a trail into the wilderness for 'the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures.'"
      — from Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865
      (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 1-5.
"Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"
["Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"]
Watercolor, untitled, unsigned, dated August 1853
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Depicting the Region

"The privileged nineteenth-century American's experience of the sublime in the landscape occurred on the heights. The characteristic viewpoint of contemporary American landscapists traced a visual trajectory from the uplands to a scenic panorama below...The experience on the heights and its literary and aesthetic translation became assimilated to popular culture and remained and continues to remain a fundamental component of the national dream. As such, it is inseparable from nationalist ideology...[T]here is an American viewpoint in landscape painting that can be identified with this characteristic line of vision...[;] this peculiar gaze represents not only a visual line of sight but an ideological one as well... [The] view from the summit metaphorically undercut the past and blazed a trail into the wilderness for 'the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures.'"
      — from Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865
      (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 1-5.
"Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"
["Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"]
Watercolor, untitled, unsigned, dated August 1853
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Depicting the Region

"The privileged nineteenth-century American's experience of the sublime in the landscape occurred on the heights. The characteristic viewpoint of contemporary American landscapists traced a visual trajectory from the uplands to a scenic panorama below...The experience on the heights and its literary and aesthetic translation became assimilated to popular culture and remained and continues to remain a fundamental component of the national dream. As such, it is inseparable from nationalist ideology...[T]here is an American viewpoint in landscape painting that can be identified with this characteristic line of vision...[;] this peculiar gaze represents not only a visual line of sight but an ideological one as well... [The] view from the summit metaphorically undercut the past and blazed a trail into the wilderness for 'the abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures.'"
      — from Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting c. 1830-1865
      (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), pp. 1-5.
"Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"
["Delaware Water Gap looking down (from above Water Gap Inn)"]
Watercolor, untitled, unsigned, dated August 1853
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Native Americans

Dr. Bird's 1830 painting of “Alabama Creek Boys” should be compared to J.O. Lewis’ portrait of Brewett, a Miami chief. It is easy to distinguish between Lewis's "anthropological" approach to depiction of Native American peoples and Bird's more humanistic approach to their portrayal.

Alabama Creek Boys
Bird's "Alabama Creek Boys"
Brewett
Lewis' portrait of Brewett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In some of his prose romances, such as Nick of the Woods, Bird portrays "murderous Injuns" in a fashion that distresses modern readers; it was not entirely pleasing even to his contemporaries. But his artistic portrayals of Native peoples show a different attitude. His working sketches (seven of them shown here) are portrait busts in something of the style of Lewis and of the other portraitists of Native Americans who contemporaneously worked in the same tradition. When, however, he completes paintings of his Native American subjects (three of them are shown here), he quite clearly removes them from the arena of anthropological specimens in which his sketches, like Lewis's portraits, seem to leave them. Instead he returns them, as actors, to the world in which they and he both live.

Bird Native American portraits

 

 

 

Native Americans

Dr. Bird's 1830 painting of “Alabama Creek Boys” should be compared to J.O. Lewis’ portrait of Brewett, a Miami chief. It is easy to distinguish between Lewis's "anthropological" approach to depiction of Native American peoples and Bird's more humanistic approach to their portrayal.

Alabama Creek Boys
Bird's "Alabama Creek Boys"
Brewett
Lewis' portrait of Brewett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In some of his prose romances, such as Nick of the Woods, Bird portrays "murderous Injuns" in a fashion that distresses modern readers; it was not entirely pleasing even to his contemporaries. But his artistic portrayals of Native peoples show a different attitude. His working sketches (seven of them shown here) are portrait busts in something of the style of Lewis and of the other portraitists of Native Americans who contemporaneously worked in the same tradition. When, however, he completes paintings of his Native American subjects (three of them are shown here), he quite clearly removes them from the arena of anthropological specimens in which his sketches, like Lewis's portraits, seem to leave them. Instead he returns them, as actors, to the world in which they and he both live.

Bird Native American portraits

 

 

 

Native Americans

Dr. Bird's 1830 painting of “Alabama Creek Boys” should be compared to J.O. Lewis’ portrait of Brewett, a Miami chief. It is easy to distinguish between Lewis's "anthropological" approach to depiction of Native American peoples and Bird's more humanistic approach to their portrayal.

Alabama Creek Boys
Bird's "Alabama Creek Boys"
Brewett
Lewis' portrait of Brewett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In some of his prose romances, such as Nick of the Woods, Bird portrays "murderous Injuns" in a fashion that distresses modern readers; it was not entirely pleasing even to his contemporaries. But his artistic portrayals of Native peoples show a different attitude. His working sketches (seven of them shown here) are portrait busts in something of the style of Lewis and of the other portraitists of Native Americans who contemporaneously worked in the same tradition. When, however, he completes paintings of his Native American subjects (three of them are shown here), he quite clearly removes them from the arena of anthropological specimens in which his sketches, like Lewis's portraits, seem to leave them. Instead he returns them, as actors, to the world in which they and he both live.

Bird Native American portraits

 

 

 

The City Looking Glass

"Philadelphia Politeness" watercolor, undated and unsigned Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
"Philadelphia Politeness"
watercolor, undated and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

The City Looking Glass, one of Dr. Bird's "'prentice" works, was written before he hit his stride as a playwright. His original manuscript (1828) is shown alongside the first printed edition, which appeared more than a century later. The undated drawing shown above, "Philadelphia Politeness," might almost have been made to illustrate this play, a "city comedy" that draws on traditions going back at least as far as Ben Jonson and whose milieu and moodintentionally or notthe drawing captures perfectly.

The play concerns two college friends en route to marriage. One is thwarted by disagreements between his Philadelphia father and his intended's Virginian father, who favors slavery, high tariffs, and states's rights. The other finds an obstacle in the apparently disreputable background of the woman he fancies, raised the daughter of a brothel-keeper. Neither lover is thwarted permanently, of course. Even the "disreputable" young woman, well brought up at a proper school far from the bawd, turns out additionally to be the sister of the Virginian, kidnapped in infancy but thought by her family to have drowneda romance motif fully indicative of the conventional character of this early work. However conventional it may be, it is also a sprightly portrayal of contemporary upperclass American manners and mores.

Penn Professor Arthur Hobson Quinn's edition marked the play's first appearance in print. The actor-impresario Edwin Forrest claimed the rights to all of the plays Dr. Bird wrote for him and, in an old if not admirable theatrical tradition, he refused to allow them to be printed out of fear that other actors might also make popular vehicles of them. Bird's earliest plays no doubt also failed to appear in print because they failed to satisfy Bird himself. Dr. Bird was one of Professor Quinn's major discoveries: an American playwright of consequence in both his early and his late works.

Theatrical Illustrations

fencer
Untitled watercolor sketch
(an actor practicing fencing positions?
or posing as a pistol shooter?—the
pencil annotation
reads: "New York. Third button—
two inches left.").
Signed: "RMB—March 1826."
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs.
Robert Montgomery Bird

 

The young Bird was already interested in the theater, and texts such as the early and unpublished City Looking Glass are not the only evidence of this interest. Several of his watercolors, some datable to a time when he was still a student, also reflect it. One of the significant aspects of his art for the student of Bird is precisely that it adds a hitherto unexplored dimension to the history of his intellectual as well as esthetic development.

Forrest
Watercolor portrait (possibly Edwin Forrest?)
untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Theatrical Illustrations

fencer
Untitled watercolor sketch
(an actor practicing fencing positions?
or posing as a pistol shooter?—the
pencil annotation
reads: "New York. Third button—
two inches left.").
Signed: "RMB—March 1826."
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs.
Robert Montgomery Bird

 

The young Bird was already interested in the theater, and texts such as the early and unpublished City Looking Glass are not the only evidence of this interest. Several of his watercolors, some datable to a time when he was still a student, also reflect it. One of the significant aspects of his art for the student of Bird is precisely that it adds a hitherto unexplored dimension to the history of his intellectual as well as esthetic development.

Forrest
Watercolor portrait (possibly Edwin Forrest?)
untitled, undated, and unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

 

Two Trips

Dr. Bird travelled to Great Britain in 1834. Long before that date, he had started to prepare himself for what he would "see" when he got there. "Pier at Margate," for instance, is a relatively early English view—it dates to his days as a student at Pennbut it is taken "from an original" by his drawing master, Jeremy Coxe.

"Pier at Margate: from an Original by J. Cox--May 2. '26"
"Pier at Margate: from an Original by J. Cox—May 2. '26" Watercolor, unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Boime's point about the significance of the gaze from above characteristic of American landscapists gains a kind of backhanded support from the considerably more "level" angle of gaze Dr. Bird utilizes in his English paintings, by comparison with what he used in many of his American scenes. Unlike America, England presented Dr. Bird with no view over which he felt entitled to seek domination.

"Chester Cathedral. May, 1834"
"Chester Cathedral. May, 1834." Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
On May 13, Dr. Bird landed at Liverpool. This accomplished view of Chester Cathedral, very different from Bird's American scenes in its approach to the English setting, suggests the intense interest he brought to his visual experience of England.
Two Trips

Dr. Bird travelled to Great Britain in 1834. Long before that date, he had started to prepare himself for what he would "see" when he got there. "Pier at Margate," for instance, is a relatively early English view—it dates to his days as a student at Pennbut it is taken "from an original" by his drawing master, Jeremy Coxe.

"Pier at Margate: from an Original by J. Cox--May 2. '26"
"Pier at Margate: from an Original by J. Cox—May 2. '26" Watercolor, unsigned.
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Boime's point about the significance of the gaze from above characteristic of American landscapists gains a kind of backhanded support from the considerably more "level" angle of gaze Dr. Bird utilizes in his English paintings, by comparison with what he used in many of his American scenes. Unlike America, England presented Dr. Bird with no view over which he felt entitled to seek domination.

"Chester Cathedral. May, 1834"
"Chester Cathedral. May, 1834." Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird
On May 13, Dr. Bird landed at Liverpool. This accomplished view of Chester Cathedral, very different from Bird's American scenes in its approach to the English setting, suggests the intense interest he brought to his visual experience of England.
Two Trips

Mary Elizabeth Mayer and Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird were married on July 13, 1837. Their wedding trip took them to central Pennsylvania, and Dr. Bird depicted the countryside through which they traveled in several watercolor sketches.

Susquehanna from Duncan's Head.
"Susquehanna from Duncan's Head. View from Duncan's Head, down the Susquehanna,
showing P[enn?] Canal, mouth of Juniata, [illegible]. View from Duncan's Head.
Monday, July 24th, 1837"
Watercolor, unsigned
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Three different titles— one faint (upper left), one dark (lower left), and one faint (bottom center)—and the date (lower right) are accompanied by additional, very faint penciled annotations ("light"; "canal"; "bank"; etc.) on the surface of the watercolor itself. All of these notes indicate the ways in which Dr. Bird's sketches attempted to provide information that would permit the artist to complete more finished versions at leisure, after his travels were ended.

Selected bibliography

Contributors