Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | The Red Bird

Monday, June 26, 2017

MANY PIECES in this exhibit jump out and impress you with their color, drama, and power. This one invites you in, and the more you linger the more there is to appreciate.

The main thing, of course, is the bird whose painterly fluorescence simply cannot be captured in a reproduction. You have to view it in person to see all the colors, textures, and treatments of light. At first glance, the bird just looks red. On closer examination, myriad tones mesmerize you with their variety and harmony.

While Catesby devoted considerable care to the bird’s minutest physical details, he also managed to capture the essence and whole of its dignity, which is another thing that makes this watercolor so appealing. Capturing and conveying the essential whole of a subject is not that common in art because it can’t be taught. It’s not about technique. It’s about vision. The artist has to see it and intuitively know that that is what all the other business of drawing and painting is about, and for.

The Red Bird, the Hiccory Tree and the Pignut, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), watercolor and body color heightened with gum arabic, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In this case, a sense of wholeness also applies to the entire composition which, as construction, is a thing of beauty. Notice, for instance, that—even though your eye keeps being drawn to the beak and head—the breast is what occupies dead center on the canvas. Had the head been placed at the center, the composition would be too bottom heavy. Visually, it would be pulled down and lose its equipoise.

Catesby, however, manages to put the focus on the head by means of the leaves, particularly the folded ones. The strongest of these as compositional devices are the folded leaf at top-center and the one at left-center, which point to each other. What they really point to are the three leaves in between them, all of whose large middle veins steer you right to the head. You can almost feel their energy pointing at the head. It’s no accident that this top-left quadrant of the painting has the most thrust and interest.

The other folded leaves in the composition serve a similar, less obvious purpose. Most apparent among them is the folded leaf at far bottom-left which keeps your eye from wandering off the canvas, while its stalk, broken two-thirds of the way up, steers you back to the bird, principally to its leg, from which you wander down to the other leg and along the tail feather; at the end of which two split leaves halt your eye, and where the folded leaf (just above them to the right) carries you back up to the bird’s head.

Everywhere you look at the foliage you find a well connected, well thought out network of compositional complexity. Yet, look at the ease with which it all ties seamlessly together to give the Hiccory Tree’s foliage a very natural appearance. Also impressive is the abundance of foliage, and the depth of perspective Catesby achieves with it (which you don’t see to this same extent in all his work).

Notice, too, how Catesby left an open space in the foliage directly in front of the bird. This highlights the bird and in doing so almost makes that empty space disappear. You don’t notice it. It’s not disturbing. But the picture would be different without it. It would be too dense and would detract from the bird’s magnificence.

Finally, start at top-left on the canvas and let your eye flow diagonally to bottom-right, along the path of traditional design. All the other elements in the composition complement this movement, and Catesby manages all of them with masterful charm, flair, and grace.

And we didn’t even get to the pignuts!

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