Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — The Blue Jay and the Bay-Leaved Smilax

Friday, May 26, 2017

THE BLUE JAY is a bothersome bird. It’s noisy and aggressive, and even known to rob eggs from other birds’ nests. And once again, Catesby has beautifully captured not just the species but its personality.

In this watercolor, he portrays the jay leaning down, pressing forward, and screeching, with its furry crown tossed back, its tongue extended, and its tail sternly kicked up.

The jay’s ferocity is heightened even more in how it grasps the branch of a Bay-Leaved Smilax (which you can learn about in the excerpt below).

A delightful description of the Bay-Leaved Smilax: This Plant is usually found in moist places: it sends forth from its root many green Stems, whose Branches overspread whatsoever stands near it, to a very considerable distance; and it frequently climbs above sixteen foot in height, growing so very thick, that in Summer it makes an impenetrable Shade, and in Winter a warm shelter for Cattle. The Leaves are of the colour and consistence of Laurel, but in shape more like the Bay, without any visible veins, the middle-rib only excepted. The Flowers are small and whitish; the Fruit grows in round Clusters and is a black Berry, containing one single hard Seed, which is ripe in October, and is food for some sorts of Birds, particularly the Jay.

This watercolor is supposed to be a sketch of the bird and the plant, but it’s clearly the bird’s show. You can enjoy Catesby’s treatment of the Smilax, but then you gotta get back to the bird. He’s just too impressive. And, as you may have guessed, he’s more impressive in the watercolor than he will be in the eventual etching.

The main reason is the composition. Traditional design, especially if it includes a strong diagonal, would place the object of significance near the top-left corner (or at least in the center of the canvas) and have it end with something of interest near the bottom-right corner. It’s possible that that’s what Catesby intended for the final etching, which would print as a reverse image. After all, then the etching would start top-left with the stalk, leaves, and tail feather. The movement of the composition would then end at the bird’s head bottom-right.

Even if he was thinking that far ahead, you have to wonder: did Catesby go against traditional rules—which are designed to grant ease and grace to the viewer’s eye—to purposely heighten the tension, knowing that was the best way to convey the blue jay’s force and vigor? As you gaze on this image and try to imagine the scene that Catesby saw—which was probably as we see it here—you can feel your eye wanting to “balance” the composition by turning it around. Our eye (in the western world) is trained to move from left to right, and having to do the opposite creates a slight tension.

The Blue Jay and the Bay-Leaved Smilax, ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and body color heightened with gum arabic (on berries), over pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

There are also more of Catesby’s tricks at work here. In addition to the strong diagonals of the leaves and the tail at right, he drew the bottom branch as a strong, incisive horizontal that adds thrust to the blue jay’s scream. You can feel the power slide along that branch and get “shot” out of the bird’s mouth. Catesby also chose to “cut” the branch under the bird’s neck and let all that space exist for the head to extend over—further adding to the sense of thrust and power (and nastiness). But if this were all, the composition would lean too far to the left and make the blue jay look like it was falling, so Catesby offset and anchored the weight with the berries at bottom right.

Notice, too, where he wrote the descriptions: the blue jay verbiage at top left, and the Smilax wording at bottom right—exactly where our western eye likes to find them, and in perfect alignment with the other main elements in his design.

Once again, Catesby depicts Nature — and leaves us — in perfect harmony. So much so that our eye can wander at ease all over the bird’s body and throughout all the leaves in wonder, amazement, and appreciation of this artist’s detail, color, and uncanny mastery of watercolor.

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