Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | The Wild Pine and Locusta Caroliniana

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Wild Pine and Locusta Caroliniana, c.1722-6, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), Watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A LARGE PART of Mark Catesby’s appeal is how his watercolors reveal and revel in the majesty of Nature. This is especially true of his paintings of flora which are typically brimming with life and movement.

This simple rendering of a wild pine also shows how much Catesby was fascinated with the structural engineering of plants as much as with the beauty of their appearance. It is a testament to his double talent as scientist and artist.

Here, the intricately detailed root system is the beginning of an elaborate display of stalks, buds, flowers, and offshoots. One thing leads to another, to another, and to another almost ad infinitum. The plant appears to grow out of itself, return to itself, and nourish itself, with the locust-moth (which was painted separately and later “stuck” on the paper) playing its part in the larger cycle of birth, growth, decay, and new growth.

This painting is also full of depth. Look at the thick, succulent stalks and the volume conveyed by the whole bunch of them. They emerge organically from the base and flow out as spontaneous ringlets in a pattern that looks just like the whimsical array you see everywhere in Nature. The pink and blue flowers also spread out effortlessly and harmoniously, almost symphonically.

Look closely, however, and you see that Catesby had as much a hand in the whole thing as Mother Nature. For example, all the stalks and strands bend left and right. None of them bend toward you or into the background. Their effect is very two dimensional, yet Catesby disguises this beautifully by emphasizing the volume of the thick stalks near the base, and by suggesting the space in, around, and behind them. He performs a similar trick with the pink blossoms which are symmetrically splayed and delicately balanced, partly to offset the downward “pull” of the dangling ringlets, and partly to point to—almost embrace—the locust at top right.

With so much movement and visual “dance,” a composition like this can be dizzying to the eye. But Catesby prevents that with his small but very stable bulb and root, both of which are triangular and which, together, anchor the composition. Just to be sure, he put the branch holding the flowers right in the middle of everything, made it arrow-straight, and painted it in a soft contrasting color to set it off, but without disrupting the gorgeous unfolding of this small miracle in the natural world.

Notice also how two long stalks, one on either side, rise vertically from the base and bend inward to create an arch over the flowers. This serves not only to balance the composition, but to contain our eye and keep us from wandering out the top of the painting.

Yes, the maestro of flora and fauna watercolor has done it again.


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