Mark Catesby at the Gibbes | The Corn Snake

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL SNAKE. It is so colorful and bright and well painted that you almost forget it’s a snake. Almost.

One thing that makes you not forget is its characteristic way of moving in a series of long, muscular loops, which Catesby has captured perfectly. There is something particular about how snakes slither along the ground, both gathering and propelling themselves at the same time. It’s a movement you can’t get if you simply lay a dead snake on the ground because then the body stretches out too much, and Catesby obviously knew this.

At the same time, he could not have drawn this snake alive unless it was somehow contained, which may have been the case. We don’t know. However he did it, it is amazingly life-like and all the more remarkable because this is primarily a watercolor rendering of it.

The Corn Snake and ‘Viscum Caryophylloides ramosum’, c.1722-6, by Mark Catesby (British, 1682-1749), Watercolour, bodycolour and pen and ink, Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A few highlights to notice are the wonderful texture of the skin and scales, the marvelous head, the striated coloring of the lower jaw, and the glazed eye which gives the snake a primeval, hideous aspect. The black, brown, and orange colors, which happen to go perfectly with the beige paper Catesby painted on, result in a very pleasing harmony of colors. But what brings the colors to life is the masterful handling of light which not only brightens the details, but gives roundness to the body. You really feel the thickness and vitality of this snake.

As always, it is interesting to see how Catesby managed his composition. In this case, it seems no accident that the first loop of the snake’s body (at left) is the longest and extends the lowest in the picture. In doing so, it suggests that this is where the animal’s main strength and propelling force come from. This part is also thicker than the rest of the body.

More obvious is how Catesby placed the head and neck at the same angle as the end of the tail. One leads us into the frame and the other leads us out of it, giving the snake a viable sense of motion in a definite direction. Placing each of them near their respective edges of the picture also compresses the spring-like action of the long body, adding tension to the movement.

In the end, you could not ask for a more beautiful portrait of the corn snake or a more exacting study of this scientific specimen. It is Catesby the “artist-naturalist” at his best.


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