Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — The Little Thrush and the Dahoon Holly

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The little Thrush and the Dahoon Holly, ca. 1722-1726, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), Watercolor, body color, and en and ink, over pencil, Lent by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

ONE OF THE FINEST PAIRS worth examining in this exhibition is the watercolor sketch and later etching of “The Little Thrush and the Dahoon Holly.” Together they demonstrate how Catesby observed, what his intentions seem to have been, and how he adjusted his art and science to complement each other.

Sometimes an artist’s initial sketch captures the first and best impression. As it gets reworked in final form, the essence of the original can get lost. Maybe the composition becomes too formal. Perhaps the simplicity of draftsmanship gets overshadowed by thick brush strokes and excessive touch ups. It’s why sketches, even if they’re incomplete, can be so refreshing to look at.

In this case, however, Catesby’s etching (below), which he did later back in England, is superior to the earlier sketch (above) in the colonies.

Note, for example, how the watercolor concentrates on the thrush which is rendered with delicacy and detail. There is a tactile reality about the plump breast, taught wings, and upright neck. A sense of vital energy is enhanced by the active posture, intent glance, and raised beak. Catesby has beautifully captured the bird’s nervous alertness.

Anatomy and plumage seem to be his main concern. The color of some leaves is given half treatment (there are no veins, for instance) while the rest of the leaves and branches are recorded only in outline—albeit in wonderfully clear and precise outline. The berries are merely suggested and overall it looks like Catesby was interested in recording the thrush first, its habitat second, and the details of flora—the holly tree—last.

But look what happened when he turned to the etching. Suddenly the holly takes center stage as camouflage for the bird whose head and body—in contrast to the watercolor—are now behind several leaves. The main stalk of the tree is rendered with a firmness that interlaces and stabilizes the composition in an easy, graceful way. The leaves are drawn in detail and colored in measured tones, while the entire piece of foliage is given realistic depth, largely through Catesby’s subtle treatment of color and tones. You really feel the bird in, and hiding in, the leaves, which themselves look vibrant with energy and natural in how they are disposed throughout the composition. There is nothing stiff, nothing artificial. You feel like you’ve come across a wonderful snapshot of life in the woods.

The little Thrush and the Dahoon Holly, ca. 1730, from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, vol. I, pl. 31, 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.

Note, too, how Catesby darkened the bird’s breast in the engraving. Did he do it to better blend the bird into the branches, as Nature would have intended for disguise and protection? Or did he do it to harmonize the tones and give the berries greater prominence in the foliage?

Also interesting is that the berries at the bottom of the watercolor are gone in the etching. Instead, Catesby has put a stem with three berries in the thrush’s beak. At the same time, he has made the clump of berries at top large and lush, almost as an anchor from which the composition now hangs (compaired to the watercolor which is “bottom heavy”). Meanwhile, the trio of berries at the bottom of the top clump echo the three now in the thrush’s beak, implying that the bird has just plucked them from above. This was also Catesby recording that the holly is a source of food for the thrush which looks ready to either imbibe right there or take flight and enjoy its meal on the ground where it is known to also forage and feed.

The etching turns out to be a perfect study of both flora and fauna, of their interdependence, and of their unity in Nature.

A few other things are also worth noting. Neither the watercolor nor the engraving show the bird’s back leg clearly. The engraving hints at it, but what you see could also be a stalk of the bush. That may have been Catesby the scientist’s way of showing how the thrush blends into its habitat. It may also have been Catesby the artist’s way of not adding a detail that didn’t help the composition and may even have hurt it.

Another thing is how Catesby slightly adjusted the curve of the main branch in the engraving, and how he altered the placement of lateral branches and leaves. These adjustments fill out the foliage, balance the composition, and add a lyricism to the work as a whole. He has depicted Nature’s design with wonderful accuracy and endowed it with a music of its own.

And that noticeably empty space in the engraving to the right of the thrush (which is less apparent in the watercolor)? Catesby “opened” it on purpose to lead our eye into the bird from the right and thereby accentuate its upward diagonal to counterbalance the downward diagonal of the foliage.

Nothing is out of place. Nothing is misbalanced. There is no tension anywhere. We see and feel Nature in its simple abundance—just as Catesby appreciated it.

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