Mark Catesby at The Gibbes — The Little Owl

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Little Owl, ca. 1722–1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682–1749), watercolor, bodycolor, and pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

NO KNOWN PORTRAITS of English naturalist Mark Catesby (1682–1749) exist, but if you look carefully you’ll see him in each of the watercolors and etchings now on exhibit at the Gibbes.

If a portrait of Catesby is ever found, I also suspect it will resemble this exquisite rendering of an owl—which you may find watching you as you go through the exhibit. (You may also notice that this is the only animal, apart from the sand crab, which looks directly at you from the canvas.)

Owls are reclusive, almost secretive birds of prey. They have keen vision, superb hunting instincts, uncanny flying skills, and fierce talons. Ever vigilant, and despite their light frame, they pounce on prey with precise, deadly force. But, oh, how soft and sweet and wise they look.

These same characteristics are indicative of Mark Catesby’s singular powers of observation, his fluid draftsmanship, his impeccable attention to detail, his firm grasp of composition and color, and his penetrating yet delicate insight into the flora and fauna (plants and animals) he “captured” more than 250 years ago while visiting the east coast.

The surface alone of Catesby’s works is stunning and very deserving of your unhurried attention. When you also consider the tools he painted with, the conditions under which he painted, and the fact that he was primarily self-taught, his works are even more astonishing. In the case of this small owl, the combination of neutral background, fine lines, soft textures, and subdued tones produces something spectacularly undemonstrative about this owl. Peering out at us as though from the void, it exudes a silent, self-contained intensity that I bet mirrored the thorough, thoughtful, meticulous, solitary man we know as Mark Catesby.

Not all works of art offer such a transparent glimpse into the soul they emerged from. Great artists seem to intuit that they are just a vehicle in which inspiration gets conceived, takes shape, and is ultimately given birth as “art.” There is something of this objective mastery in Catesby—as scientist, artist, and human being—and it is this, as much as the objects hanging on the wall, which makes this exhibit so special.

“The Little Owl”

As with most of the pieces on display, “The Little Owl” (marked as “Small Owl” at top of the canvas) is a watercolor he painted in the United States while his “catch” was still alive. His intent was to sketch it as the basis for a final etching that he would produce back in England, where the etching plate would be printed in black and white and then colored by hand—which Catesby did for every printed version of his groundbreaking, two-volume book, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.

As was also pointed out by visiting art curator and historian Henrietta McBurney Ryan* in her recent lecture at the Gibbes, color was critical to Catesby because he knew it was required for an exact understanding of plants and animals, especially given that the books preceding him were black and white due to printing limitations of the day. This gave Catesby’s initial sketches more importance, even though only the colored etchings would get into his book. Fortunately, King George III purchased the original watercolors in 1768 and they have been preserved in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle for us to now see and be able to compare with some of their etching counterparts which are also part of the exhibit. Studying the two next to one another is an instructive delight.

One of the first things you notice is how much lighter and airier most of the watercolors are. This is partly due to the medium and paper which Catesby used, compared to the paper and colors of the etchings. The latter created a darker, heavier, and sometimes more dramatic impression, whereas the watercolors retain an effervescence that you often see in master drawings. Typically, artists know their sketches are not finished products, which leaves them free to play with form, composition, and color. The result is often an unhindered, unedited expression of their initial vision.

This is certainly true of Catesby’s watercolor “sketches.” But in his case, especially considering that he didn’t have a camera, he also knew that the watercolors would be his “negatives” for the etchings, so he sought to capture everything he thought he would need later to produce a final product back in England. He was also a perfectionist for whom sketching was clearly more than a preliminary exercise. It was a complete outpouring of his insights, observations, and talent.

Notice, for example, how the owl is finished in every detail, from the gradations of color in the body parts, to the different textures of head, chest, wings, legs, and feet, down to the reflection of light in each talon. Catesby also did something all good portraitists do: he painted the eyes differently, and even made one eyebrow more vertical than the other, which gives the face a striking, human expression. In other words, this is more than a scientific record of a species. It’s a portrait of this particular bird whose inner nature Catesby seems to know as well as its outer appearance.

Notice, too, how the owl bears such dignity. Although dignity seems innate to owls, Catesby has given this one added majesty, and a touch of vanity, through his distinct use of hues, tones, textures, and contrast, along with several tricks of composition. For example, if you locate the center of the composition you will find that it is just on top of the bird’s back. Your gaze naturally wants to go there, but it can’t because its “pulled” left by the large, piercing eyes. Nowhere in the painting is there more contrast than in the eyes which “grab” you and hold you for a moment, with a little help from the upward-pointing ears.

But the ears lead out of the canvas, so you come back down where you get led by the sharp beak that carries your eye immediately to the defined edge of the wing which sweeps your gaze down and around to the tail feathers. But again, there is nowhere to go beyond that—only empty space. So your gaze jumps back to the leg which draws you to those menacing talons. Here, Catesby has you firmly in his “grip” and he did it masterfully. But then he lets you go and your eye rises along the plush, pliant chest and back to those piercing eyes which you keep returning to due to the engineering of the composition and that ongoing tension between the eyes and the center point of the canvas.

In the western world, our written pages move from top-left to bottom-right, and this left-to-right falling diagonal has long been used to powerful effect in art and graphic design. It’s known, for instance, that top-left is the “power” viewing point on a page, with bottom-right having almost equal impact. Meanwhile, bottom-left and top-right are considered “weak” or impotent simply because the eye is not inclined to go there.

So what does Catesby do with his owl? He puts the head and eyes at top-left and the talons below them and slightly to the right where they almost “join” visual impact with the tail feathers. All of this is further highlighted by placing the entire bird just left of center canvas so that the strong diagonal accentuates the emptiness at right to create a palpable sense of space. by contrast, the outstretched, clutching talons anchor the whole composition with subtle dramatic effect.

Like the owl he depicts, Catesby was wiser than you think when you first see his studies of nature. But keep looking and the art in them will start washing over you in waves of wonder and appreciation.

Stay tuned for more reviews from this exhibit
Please check back for reviews of more works from this exhibit—which runs through September 24.

* Henrietta McBurney Ryan is Curator of Collections, Newnham College, Cambridge and formerly Deputy Keeper of Prints & Drawings at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. She was a guest speaker of The Catesby Commemorative Trust at the symposium on “The World of Mark Catesby” which was held at the Gibbes Museum as part of the opening of the exhibit, “Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas.”

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One Response to “Mark Catesby at The Gibbes — The Little Owl”

  1. JAI

    Wonderful review beautifully written. Thanks for the picture AND the explanation.


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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
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