Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — the Ghost Crab and a Spider

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Ghost Crab and an unidentified spider, ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and body color heightened with gum arabic, and pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

THIS DOUBLE STUDY of a crab and spider holds more than double fascination. It shows how Catesby observed as a scientist and how he worked as an artist. It also demonstrates two distinct approaches to watercolor design. And it beautifully compares two creatures with juxtaposing views of one from the front and one from above.

Something else many people probably haven’t give much thought to is how similar these two animals are: their multiple legs, their shelled torsos, their prickly legs, and their menacing demeanors. Catesby managed to convey the prehistoric oddness and stark beauty of each in a compelling way.

But why did he put them in this position, with the crab up top and the spider below? And why is the crab shown from the front, and the spider from above? Did Catesby do it for a reason? We may never know, yet the more you study his work, the less you conclude that any of it was left to accident. His strategies seem no less precise than his strokes, and as you examine this piece, the placement makes sense.

If the spider was on top, it would appear to “float,” which is contrary to the spider as a crawler, be it on the ground or in its web. Likewise, if the crab was on bottom, it would be too “heavy,” which contradicts its light construction and fleet movement. As further evidence of this, the crab’s monotone effect and vertical legs make it lighter and give it “lift,” while the spider’s outspread legs, deep colors, and rich detail make it heavier and more gravity laden.

You also typically see a spider from above—as you dread the thought of it touching your feet. And for anyone who frequents Carolina beaches, a sand crab scrambling high on its feet is a familiar site as it either runs away from, or aggressively charges, you—usually with one claw raised as a threat (which usually scares humans nearly 50 times its size). And those eyes! In Catesby’s watercolor, as at the beach, they seize on you with a hollow, primeval glare that seems to be, for good reason, something to be afraid of.

Catesby not only got everything right and put everything in the right place, he made it look completely natural, down to the delicate shadows beneath the crab’s claws, which together convey sand, distance, and movement. Study the crab carefully and you will also see that, while it looks less finished than the elaborate spider, Catesby has done here some of his best shading and modeling in the entire exhibit.

Compositionally, putting the crab near the middle of the canvas gives it both “force” and a suggestion of sideways movement that typifies the crab, while putting the spider slightly left lets your eye imagine it “crawling” to the right. Meanwhile, the  downward-pointing claws of the crab and the upward-pointing legs of the spider unite the composition visually. There is no tension in the space. There is no hostility between the creatures. Despite even the strong contrast of light (crab) and dark (spider), your eye rests comfortably wherever it looks.

It is remarkable how through very different techniques—one using line and shading, the other using applied layers of thickened watercolor—both animals emit a tactile, visceral energy. You can feel the spider crawling and the crab scrambling the same way you see Catesby’s birds fluttering, his snakes wriggling, and his fish swimming. He achieves a similar result with plants by means of flowing lines, circular compositions, and lush colors. Everything is alive, moving, and connected in Catesby’s natural world in a way that you don’t often see, even in the work of gifted artists who nail the details but leave you with a static, albeit spectacular, reproduction.

Also unlike other artists, Catesby never tries to enliven nature through exaggeration or melodrama. He let’s it be exactly as it is to reveal its mystery—which is further testament to his artistic instincts and skill. His exacting science informs learning, his elegant art enhances living, and together they encourage us to strive for new heights.

I can’t think of a better recipe for education and inspiration—or a better reason for going back to the Gibbes for more.

Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas runs through September 24 at the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, SC.

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