Spontaneous Surrealism in Mark Catesby's Artwork
An investigation of the thematic confluences between Surrealist art and Catesby's prints.
31 August, 2022 by
Spontaneous Surrealism in Mark Catesby's Artwork
Ana Norman

The primary tenets of the Surrealist art movement are an embrace of the uncanny, making the familiar strange, and challenging rational notions of perception and reality. Though the movement emerged in the early 20th century, it has premonitions in unlikely places, such as the 18th-century art of Mark Catesby. The work for which Catesby is most remembered, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, visually documents the flora and fauna of colonial America through hand-colored engravings. Catesby, an English artist-naturalist, set out on an expedition of discovery to learn about the uncharted animalia of the Americas. As a self-taught artist, Catesby takes a unique approach to rendering the natural world which results in a selection of prints that closely parallel Surrealist art in the following ways: the disavowal of relative scale, an embrace of spatial incoherence, making the familiar strange, and reliance on happenstance for creative direction. This article will examine instances in which Catesby’s natural history prints exhibit precursive elements of Surrealism.

The Surrealist art movement was incited by the late 19th-century interest in the unconscious mind and emerged in the 1920s as a reaction to the horror of the First World War. The movement sought to reject rationality in favor of exploring the uncanny territory of the subconscious mind. Often in art, the results were depictions of landscapes, objects, and organisms that, upon first inspection, appear familiar, but when examined more closely have strange, phantasmagoric elements. In other words, Surrealist art tended to draw inspiration from realistic motifs but presented them under an uncanny lens. Natural history art, especially that of the 18th century, may appear to be a far cry from the dream-like art of the early twentieth century. However, there are several coincidental points of commonality between Surrealism and Mark Catesby’s natural history prints.

To begin with, Catesby’s prints often demonstrate a disavowal of relative scale such as in Pl. 20 Buffalo. In this print, we are presented with a buffalo that rubs its neck up against a flowering pseudoacacia tree. The tree, however, blossoms into a singular branch with flowers and leaves so large that the buffalo is dwarfed by comparison. The result is somewhat comical as the miniature buffalo is forced to contend with the massive petals of the flowering branch. Such a distortion of scale makes the scene appear fantastic. However, in all likelihood, Catesby was drawing on a historical illustrative convention widely adopted in botanical art wherein a tree is represented by “a rudimentary trunk and a single branch bearing both flowers and fruit.” (Sanders, 30) This simplified manner of representation allowed botanical artists to capture the essence of a tree - the trunk, leaves, and blossoms - without depicting the unique specificities of the particular tree. 

Another manner in which Catesby’s art parallels that of the Surrealist movement is through his embrace of spatial incoherence, as can be seen in Vol. 1 Pl. 72, The Turn Stone or Sea Dottrel. In this print, we are faced with a scene as perplexing as the Buffalo and its mammoth tree. In this print, a curious Turn Stone wanders over a branch in order to do what it does best - to turn over a stone. The spatially incoherent aspect of this print lies in that the botanical sprig and bird appear to be operating on two separate planes. While the piece of flora juts upward as though in active growth, the Turn Stone steps over it as though the twig is lying flat on the ground. The spatial dissonance is exacerbated in that the bird and the stone have a sense of weight to them made evident by the light shading beneath each, while the plant does not have this sense of gravity. As a result, the bird and rock appear suspended over the plant as though operating on a separate geometric plane.

The selective shading beneath the Sea Dottrel and stone make it appear as though they are operating on a separate plane from the leafy sprig.

Likewise, in Vol. 1 Pl. 86, The Great Booby, the familiar is made strange by means of Catesby’s bizarre composition. In this print, a large, ominous bird’s head emerges in profile from the swampy water below. Framed by foliage, the Booby’s head reads as a bodiless phantasm gliding through the water. Catesby’s reasoning for constructing such an unusual composition was likely to provide the viewer with an optimal view of the bird’s cranial anatomy. However, it is always amusing to come across something so outlandish in a scientific folio.

Lastly, Catesby’s occasional reliance on happenstance for creative direction runs parallels to the Surrealist's embrace of chance and automatism. While many of Catesby’s plant and animal pairings reflect ecological associations, such as when the plant is a dietary staple for the animal, a Catesby 1754, Vol. 2 Pl. 95, The Mancaneel Tree Catesby 1754, Vol. 2 Pl. 95, The Mancaneel Tree - Detail Catesby 1754, Vol. 2 Pl. 95, The Mancaneel Tree number of his prints depict a random assortment of plants and animals that have no ecological relation. For example, Vol. 2 Pl. 95, The Mancaneel Tree offers an incongruous assemblage of plants and animals including the Bahamian manchineel tree, smooth mistletoe, and a pair of Spanish festoon butterflies from Cadiz. 

As Joel Oppenheimer observed, Catesby’s compilations of unrelated plants and animals are not dissimilar to the Surrealist's reliance on stream-of-consciousness thought, or automatism, as a creative approach to their artwork and a method for tapping into the subconscious. Though Catesby most likely had more pragmatic reasons for his random assortments of flora and fauna, such as limited space and a desire to complete the folio, the resultant artwork shares an organizational element with many Surrealist works. 

In conclusion, Catesby’s prints contain a charming juxtaposition of medieval and modern characteristics including a number of themes widely found in art from the Surrealist movement. Though visually distinctive and separated by several centuries, Surrealist art and that of Mark Catesby align in the embrace of several shared characteristics including a rejection of spatial coherence, a playful approach to scale, an embrace of the strange, and the use of random assemblage. While adherence to these principles was intentional for Surrealist artists, it was likely unintentional for Catesby. Rather, his informal artistic training caused him to render objects and organisms in a manner that did not uphold the same veristic standards that formal training may have endowed. Instead, he played with non-realistic modes of representation in order to reflect his dynamic observations and to offer the viewer a new, refreshing perspective of nature. 

To see additional work by Mark Catesby, please visit the links below.

Spontaneous Surrealism in Mark Catesby's Artwork
Ana Norman 31 August, 2022
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