Cases 9-14--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, offers 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 experiments--and 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.

Last update 22 April 1996.