YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Mark Catesby's Brush With American Nature


The Huntington art galleries act as the launching venue for "Mark Catesby's Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle." It's a traveling exhibition offering the very first public display of 52 watercolor drawings by a renowned 18th century pioneer naturalist.

Exercising several simultaneous layers of interest, the work has everything from a prestigious artistic provenance to landmark status in scientific exploration and a significant place in the annals of natural history.

Catesby's early pictorial documentation of the flora and fauna of the southern colonies and the Caribbean were made during two trips between 1712 and 1726. They resulted in some 260 watercolors published in two volumes as "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands."

They remained an important reference well into the early 19th century. Lewis and Clark consulted them. John James Audubon was inspired by them. The celebrated Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus used them as a source for his classic system of classification. Today some naturalists think Catesby was ahead of Linnaeus because he depicted animals and plants together, suggesting a proto-ecological mentality.

Art lovers looking at Catesby's lovely, decorative images might be inclined to think the juxtaposition was more inspired by aesthetics than by science. But there's a strong suggestion that Catesby knew what he was up to in the fact that when the English Royal Society asked him to review Linnaeus' first publication, he declined.

Catesby was born in 1682 and died at the age of 67. Raised in Suffolk, he came from a family of lawyers and doctors sufficiently well-off to leave him a man of small but independent means. Details of his background are a bit sketchy. He appears not to have gone to a university, but he did know Latin and may have been inspired to become a naturalist by an uncle associated with the botanist John Ray.

Good family connections allowed Catesby to develop a large circle of around 250 interested patrons and subscribers who backed his explorations from both sides of the Atlantic. He was, however, somewhat pestered by their demands for reports and copies of his drawings.

When it came time to finally publish them, beginning in 1731, Catesby simply could not afford the skilled craftsmen required for translation into engravings. Apparently an intrepid chap, he proceeded to learn to make his own plates. Eventually he did employ a couple of collaborators--George Edwards and the German Georg Dionysius Ehret.

Catesby was always self-conscious about the quality of his drawing. He bemoaned his lack of formal art training and said he hoped the "flatness" of his imagery would be compensated by his careful observation. Clearly he thought of himself as a scientist rather than as an artist.


What then, we might ask, is his work doing in art galleries? The simple answer is that it just self-evidently belongs there. But the question does remind us that not only is Catesby's work about classification, it raises the issue of how it ought to be classified. Is it art or science?

The truth is that since the Renaissance, the genius of Western art has turned on a need to explore everything empirically to arrive at generalized insights. It's amazing how much of what we regard as pure art can be given a scientific reading. Just adjust the mind a bit and art yields information in subjects ranging from anatomy to optics and relativity. It just depends on how it's read.

Regarding Catesby's work aesthetically is fruitful. It comes across as lyric poetry made by a folk artist whose passion and doggedness transcend itself. He's particularly tender in an image of a blue bird surrounded with foliage. Looks like it's just waiting to be stitched into a quilt.

The section on birds begins with raptors, birds of prey. The first subject is a bald eagle. A captured fish has just escaped his talons and he turns to retrieve it. The pose is awkward but the details look perfect and the spirit is just right.

There's an innocence about Catesby's animals. Even a predator like the eagle is just doing his thing; he's not malicious. It's hard to avoid an irony that never would have occurred to Catesby. After all, in his day there was no United States to have the bald eagle as its national symbol.

Catesby didn't anthropomorphize his animals, but he did give them remarkable presence. The vivacity of a Jamaican black bird comes from its sharp, alert pose. Catesby makes us share his bemusement with a fish that can fly. He's downright mesmerized with coiling snakes and crabs that are all claws. He faces nature with absolute wonder and--unlike many of his descendants--complete humility.

The exhibition comes with a handsome catalog that echoes the quality of original volumes on view. It contains essays by exhibition curators Henrietta McBurney of the print room at the Royal Library and the Huntington's Amy Meyers.

* The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; to July 20. Closed Mondays. Information: (818) 405-2141.

Los Angeles Times Articles