Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — the Bald Eagle

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Image Credit: The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and body color heightened with gum arabic over pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

THIS BOLD IMAGE of an eagle is easy to overlook because it’s right at the entrance of the exhibit where there are several other strong pieces nearby. As you first step into the room, you may even find yourself spinning around trying to decide where to start.

This watercolor also hangs next to its etching counterpart—which is a reverse image of this one—and there is a tendency to start comparing the two rather than study each one carefully. To remedy this, just make a point of returning later for a second look after you’ve seen the rest of the exhibit. You may find that the watercolor in particular stands out in fascinating ways, some of which are described below.

Among all the pieces in the exhibit, this is Catesby’s only true landscape. He uses the entire canvas and he defines a discernible foreground, middle ground, and background. Most of his attention is given to the eagle, which is treated in the greatest detail—especially the wings which are superbly painted. But the rest of the piece shows that Catesby was not as skilled when it came to painting water, rocks, and human figures. Apart from how he uses all those for compositional purposes, they look amateurish. You don’t see such contrast of technique in most of his other works. Nor do you typically see much other than a foreground.

Most of Catesby’s works are painstaking studies of species. He does occasionally—and supremely—venture into “portraiture” of flora and fauna where he infuses the plants and animals with an interior life of their own. It is one of the things that beautifully distinguishes his work from other naturalist painters. In the case of this watercolor, he is depicting the bald eagle as a species. He seems less interested in telling us who the bird is and more interested in showing us what it does and how it does it. In other words, this is a narrative landscape. It tells the story of an osprey (top right) and an eagle fishing in the same water habitat where they compete for the same food. Here, the osprey under pressure from the eagle has dropped its catch which the eagle is snatching, not from the water, but in mid air. It is a stunning display of aerobatics (even the distressed osprey looks impressed).

Perspective and Composition
The first thing that catches (no pun intended) your eye is the off-kilter angle of the composition. You wonder, is the painting crooked in its frame? Did Catesby make a mistake? What’s going on? Where is his customary symmetry and balance? The answer to all these questions lies in the eagle’s wings which are perfectly balanced and symmetrical. It is against them that everything else looks crooked—just as Catesby intended. He wanted to take us up in the air where the eagle is flying and show us what it looks and feels like from there—which is familiar to anyone who has ever piloted or flown in a small airplane as it pivots to turn.

His visual pivot is used here to convey not only the eagle’s flight, but its speed, agility, eyesight, and timing, as well as the tension associated with catching a fast-falling object in mid air. The lightning-fast motion is accentuated by the eagle’s head turning the opposite direction than the fish is pointed in, and in which the water is flowing. The leftward thrust of the whole painting (except the eagle) is underscored with the help of the boatman rowing almost out of the frame, and the dark boulders in the left foreground. Did Catesby also use those boulders to heighten the tension by making us wonder if the eagle would snatch its dinner before the fish fell into the rocks?

An Oddity
There was one thing that kept bothering me as I looked at this piece. It is the eagle’s torso which is painted in less detail than the head, wings, and tail feather. Despite the bird’s supposed twist in flight, the position of the torso and its relationship to the rest of the anatomy look awkward. Its texture also resembles a land mammal of some kind (I’m not sure what) more than an eagle. Is it because Catesby was painting the eagle from where he had hung it after capturing it? It’s hard to know, but the same thing exists in the etching for which the watercolor served as a model.

When I began studying art, I had the good fortune to come across Jakob Rosenburg’s fabulous book, On Quality in Art (which comprises a series of lectures he gave in 1964 at The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.). His exhaustive study explains “quality” in terms of specific criteria, including things like draftsmanship, composition, perspective, narration, color, chiaroscuro, and expression. After reading it, I began a laborious process of scrutinizing not only paintings but all the arts with those criteria in mind and confirmed—as Rosenburg described so well—that expressiveness is what is frequently missing in otherwise expert works. With all art forms, you can be a master of technique yet never scale a certain peak if you lack expressiveness in your work. The other criteria are necessary to study, but expressiveness, and how an artist achieves it, is perhaps the most fascinating and elusive because it is the one—as Rosenburg also explained—which cannot be taught.

Although Catesby was a scientist-painter, he possessed this quality which you can see in the way he endows the eagle with its violent, dangerous, magnificent flight over a fast-moving river. Yes, he employed all the compositional techniques mentioned above, but there is something more which you cannot see. That something lay in Catesby himself: in his unique power of observation, his perceptivity and patience, and the ability to transfer what his eye saw, into his head, through his hand, and onto the canvas—not just in superb detail, but with a very open heart and clear soul.

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One Response to “Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — the Bald Eagle”

  1. Addison Ingle

    Once again, you have helped this decidedly uninformed reader understand the larger picture….


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