Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

An Exhibition in the Kamin Gallery, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylania

by Daniel Traister
Curator for Research Services
Department of Special Collections


A. Newsam, from a daguerreotype by M. A. Root
"Robert M. Bird"
Philadelphia: P. S. Duval, [n.d.]
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 obituarist--died in January of 1854.



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 time--this 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 but--as the gifts, extending over many years, of several generations of Dr. Bird's descendants--they 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.

--Daniel Traister
Exhibition Curator


Table of Contents

The City Looking Glass
Theatrical Illustrations
The Broker of Bogota
Native Americans
Nick of the Woods
Bird in "the West"
Bird's Contemporaries Look at Native Americans
Bird as Artist
Portraits and Scenes of New Castle, Delaware
Depicting the Region
Bird Views America
Two Trips
More American Views

Last update: Wednesday, 11-Jul-2012 13:20:06 EDT
Send mail concerning this page to: