Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — the Black Snake

Monday, June 19, 2017

THIS WATERCOLOR stands out in several ways. One way is how Catesby has the snake itself “standing” out, as though it has lifted one quarter of its body into the air—which I have never seen a black snake do in quite this manner. It could be that this was Catesby’s way of bringing to life the snake’s wriggling energy and stength. Notice how he conveys that energy all the way from the head to the very tip of the tail. Every inch of the animal’s body is moving—which can be exasperating when you discover a snake (even a non-venomous one) in front of you.

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

Another interesting thing is how Catesby defined the foreground, where most of the snake’s body is, and how well he modeled and shaded both the skin and the ground (which looks almost like a table top). Had he not done this—imagine the entire background empty as it is in the other two-thirds of the picture—the snake would appear to be flat on the ground, seen from above. By putting the main body in the foreground, the upper body in the middle ground, and letting the background float empty, Catesby heightened and dramatized the snake’s movement. Those teeth and that lecherous tongue helped, too.

Look carefully and you’ll also see that Catesby didn’t consistently honor his source of light, which was challenging considering all the twists and turns of the snake’s body. But if you ask the question that art students—and especially painters—are taught to ask, “what is the source of light and which direction is it coming from?” you’ll come up with more than one answer. In general, it’s coming from the left side, slightly top-left. But Catesby seems to have purposely adjusted the light as he saw fit to accentuate the snake’s movement and force.

At the same time, there is something cartoonish about this image. It’s doesn’t look like a real snake. Yet it has an amazing power which it seems Catesby was trying, as much as anything else, to capture. Another word that comes to mind about what he was trying to capture is the snake’s wickedness. Even some of the deep shadows look wicked. Nevertheless, while there is a definite “blackness” about the whole effect, look at all the subtle colors Catesby has included in the canvas. The longer you peer into that foreground, the more it looks like a beautiful ocean floor.

Another reason this image may not look quite real is that Catesby had to capture the snake in one moment, yet he wanted to convey how the snake looks as it moves over a period of several quick moments—which is what gives snakes their remarkable, and terrifying, appearance. Had Catesby rendered the snake motionless, it wouldn’t exude its characteristic vitality. But there was no way he could show it actually moving, so he maneuvered the composition, the colors, and the light to do that for him. It’s another testament to Catesby’s brilliance as an artist, a painter, and, above all, a keen observer of the natural world.

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One Response to “Mark Catesby at the Gibbes — the Black Snake”

  1. Addison Ingle

    Most enjoyable. We have some friends coming into town over the 4th and we will take them to see the exhibit. Your commentary will be much used.


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