Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | The Chatterer and the Magnolia

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Chatterer and the Magnolia, c.1722-6, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), Watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum arabic, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

THE CHATTERER, with its dynamic mask and bristly tuft of hair, is front and center in this composition, but the Magnolia steals the show. It’s one of the few instances (in this exhibit) where Catesby combined fauna and flora and shined the brightest light on the latter.

Despite the bird being beautifully painted in a variety of colors and elegance, it comes across flat on the paper. It lacks volume, especially compared to the leaves of the Magnolia which—openly spread—float in a clear, three-dimensional space.

Helping bring that space alive are the carefully rendered leaves, veins, stalks, and main branch, along with the gorgeous folds, colors, and shading in the leaves and blossom. It’s almost as though Catesby worked on the bird first, but before finishing it turned to the leaves and flower which fascinated and preoccupied him so much that he never returned to the bird. Or perhaps he felt he had recorded enough of the bird for his purpose, which was to have a template for the eventual etching that would be derived from this “sketch.”

What a sketch it is, in which Catesby effortlessly tied the two objects—the bird and the plant—together. The bird’s wing and tail feather fall naturally into place where leaves might otherwise be, thereby not disrupting the symmetry of the plant. And the line where brown meets black on the Chatterer’s silky coat “swings” your eye easily from the leaf at left to the branch in front of the bird. Never are you left questioning the connection between leaf and branch.

That line, in fact, ensures the stability and unity of the entire composition—a composition perfectly organized to keep your eye inside it, wandering throughout it, admiring the remarkable detail of Catesby’s eye and the unparalleled delicacy of his watercolor brush.


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