Robert Montgomery Bird (1805/6-1854), a writer of considerable note, was born in New Castle, Delaware, one hundred and ninety years ago (February 5, 1805 or 1806). Raised there and in Philadelphia, he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1824 and 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.
Dr. Bird practiced medicine for a year after graduation, giving up his practice 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. Following its success and for the next seven years, Dr. Bird continued to write 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. In the 1840s, he returned to medicine as Professor of the Institutes of Medicine and Materia Medica at the Pennsylvania Medical College, but his scientific interests were to find a surprising additional outlet in "sun-painting," or photography. His work in this area remained completely unknown until 1992, when the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired an archive documenting Bird's photographic experiments during the 1850s. We are grateful for permission to reprint their initial report on this archive here.
The present exhibition reveals yet one more barely-known 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 his 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.
Exhibition entrance Acknowledgments: Contents
Last update: 22 April 1996.