Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — The Porgy

Thursday, May 25, 2017

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I usually find it hard looking at pictures of fish. The one on top here had also received a lot of press during promotion for the Gibbes exhibit, so I thought I had had enough of it. As I prowled the paintings, I could feel my reluctance to give it much time. But, boy, was I wrong.

These two beauties—the watercolor on top and the etching on bottom—happen to hang next to each other on their own partition wall in the exhibit, which helps you settle in and concentrate on just these two.

They’re titled “The Porgy” (known to us in the South as bream) because, according to Wikipedia, Porgy is the name given to any fish in the family Sparidae. The name Aurata, which you see at the bottom of the etching, refers to the gilt-head (sea) bream (Sparus aurata) and Aurata derives from the gold bar marking between its eyes—which is not visible in these two works. The Porgy* also feeds on shellfish, including mussels and oysters, which probably explains the unusual front teeth.

In many of his paintings of animals—whose natural coloring and carcasses would suffer during the trip back to England—Mark Catesby was meticulous about painting his watercolor “sketch” in full detail as a reliable reference for the etching later. The etching is also not an exact duplicate of the watercolor. It is close enough to notice Catesby’s scientific eye, yet different enough to reveal his artistry and his artistic license, as we will see.

The Etching

Even though the etching was done after the watercolor, I find it interesting to look at it first. But before we do, realize that as excellent as this online reproduction is, it falls well short of the power and beauty of the original. The print in the exhibit comes from a copper plate that Catesby obviously spent a lot of time working on to get it right. He also (hand) colored it to perfection to give the skin that “fish” feel of rough scales, thick oil, and slithering slickness. What at first looks dark grows more and more colorful the longer you look at it. It is a marvel to see how Catesby managed to render such radiant colors, such soft contrasts, and such variety of textures. And to make it look so natural and easy.

The Porgy, ca. 1734, from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), hand-colored etching, On loan from Herbert E. Fitzgerald III, Richmond, VA, and Carolina Antiques and Prints, Charleston, SC

It reminds me of a comment from American artist and acclaimed art teacher, Robert Henri—whose beautiful “The Green Fan (Girl of Toledo)” hangs on the second floor of the Gibbes. Henri said, “All real works of art look as though they were done in joy,” which seems applicable in this case. He also said, “A work of art is the trace of a magnificent struggle,” which is no doubt also true of both of these pieces as well as the entire exhibit. In fact, one of the reasons this exhibit is so captivating is because Catesby was the personification of diligence and dedication as both scientist and artist. Just think for a moment how many of those you know in history.

One other note about the etching is the shadow beneath the fish, and the placement of the fish at a slight angle. Both of these almost say, “I am on the table being painted.” For one thing, this is exactly how a fish looks when you plop it on a table to cut it. For another, you never see a shadow like this on a fish underwater.

The Watercolor

Another special thing about this exhibit (there are many) is the chance to compare several of the final etchings to their watercolor originals. In the case of these two fish portraits, comparing them helps you see and appreciate things about each that you might otherwise miss if you were seeing just one of them.

For example, the lighter and slightly stained paper of the watercolor makes it look like water and gives an impression of the fish swimming through water. The contrast of the etching background makes this even more prominent. There is also something about the “weight” of watercolor and about Catesby’s lighter treatment of colors here that gives the fish a sense of true motion. The front fins seem to be moving. The tail seems to be wriggling and propelling the body forward. The pink-orange color inside the mouth lends the gills live action and believability. You can easily imagine this fish swimming by in a large tank if not in the ocean—which brings you back to Catesby’s strong interest in how plants and animals looked and lived in their natural habitats.

The Porgy, ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and bodycolor, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

And here’s a fun comparison of these two beautiful pieces: the eyes. The watercolor version shows a solid black eye, which is how a gaping, gawking fish eye tends to look. In the etching, however, Catesby has added a reflection of light to the pupil. Maybe because he was coloring the etching inside his studio where there was light reflecting in the eye. Or maybe because he wanted to further show, along with the shadow and angle placement, that this was not meant to represent a fish in the water.

Finally, in the etching, I also love how the bottom fin points, almost whimsically, to its name.

Both of these works are remarkable. They are also equally compelling as scientific specimens and as art—which tells us a lot about “The Curious Mister Catesby.”

* For the record, my little bit of research prompted the question: does the name Porgy have anything to do with Dubose Heyward’s famous character, Porgy, in “Porgy and Bess?” If it does, I couldn’t find ready evidence of it.

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One Response to “Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — The Porgy”

  1. Addison Ingle

    Most enjoyable!


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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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