Watson and the Shark: Copley's Greatest Painting

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This painting was painted by John Singleton Copley on 1778 in National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C., USA) and it has a three painted version. The two versions of Copley's Watson and the Shark exist. One is in the National Gallery of Art and the other is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The material that used was Oil on canvass, it measured 182.1 x 229.7 cm. It is classified as Neoclassicism and the color is composed of gray, blue green, blue, blue, black, white, red. And the texture is really smooth. The focal point is the man and the shark in the water. There also a guy standing and holding a long sharp stick toward to the shark. And as what you can see the composition is organized around an upright triangle. Watson and the Shark are at the base, and the shaft of the boat hook serves as one leg in the triangle while the black sailor’s arm and Watson's remaining foot mark the other leg. We can also see that all of their eyes and hands reveal their emotional state. Watson’s eyes bulge with shock and horror figure and his hair sweeping towards the shark’s gaping mouth and teeth heighten the sense of imminent danger. There are also two sailor men wearing a white long sleeves trying to reach the naked white man floating in the water, which showed/expressed their frantic urgency.

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As portraiture fell out of favor, Copley followed West's example and turned to painting historical-style works commemorating contemporary events. His first was Watson and the Shark, completed in 1778. This was done after Copley had moved to England following an incident in which Patriots accused him of harboring a Loyalist. In Watson and the Shark , Copley depicts an incident from the youth of British bayonet Brook Watson (1735-1807). And in 1749 the young Watson lost part of his leg during a shark attack while swimming in Cuba's Havana Harbor. This painting shows Watson helpless in the water And about to be attacked by a large shark as his friends try to pull him into a boat. Critics especially praised Copley’s tight triangular composition of the friends as well as his loose brushstrokes (Stock, 36).

There are nine men in a crowded rowboat are engaged in a rescue operation. Two lean over the side in an attempt to save Watson: another shouts directions. There is also a tiger shark circles back for a third strike on the hapless Brook Watson. On the first strike the shark had dragged the fourteen year old 100 yards away, the flesh was stripped and shred his right leg at the calf. On the second attack, Watson was again dragged under but this time his right foot was bitten off at the ankle and his foot was gone and because of this the blood-stained water. And as the shark rose for its third strike, his crewmates in hot pursuit were able to the drive the shark away before it could strike a third time and Watson was saved after an amputation just below the knee (Masur, 1994).

According to Clancy (2012), Historians of American art have long regarded John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark (figure 1) as a seminal work in the artist's oeuvre, its debut at the Royal Academy in 1778 an event that marked the artist's transformation from a colonial portraitist, uncertain of his talents, to a well-regarded English painter deserving of contemporary recognition and future acclaim. Yet, despite the volume of pages subsequently devoted to the painting, the image and its sources have not been fully understood. Seeing it as a narrative of divine salvation, art historians typically have found throughout Watson and the Shark references to Christian imagery and stories, although there is no evidence that the artist, his patron, Watson, or viewers at the time saw it in those terms. On the contrary, a close reading of contemporary reviews and a newly identified source for the figure of Watson--Jusepe de Ribera's Prometheus--suggest a new interpretation, one centering on human agency rather than divine deliverance.

And three years later, Copley would paint Watson and the Shark. Although its size and composition convey a desire that it be classed as a history painting, it would not, strictly speaking, have been categorized among works of this type. Like West's Death of General Wolfe (1770), Watson and the Shark situates the viewer in the New World and depicts the recent past, portraying figures in modern garb. But whereas the story of Wolfe had already become a recognizable parable of self-sacrifice in the public sphere by the time West made his painting, this event in the life of Brook Watson (1735-1807) was unknown. Rather than depicting a scene of acknowledged significance, Copley created importance for the event by heightening its dramatic character and deploying iconographically significant sources. The lengthy descriptive title the painting bore at the Royal Academy exhibition--A boy attacked by a shark, and rescued by some seamen in a boat; founded on a fact which happened in the harbor of the Havannah--reveals that part of the image's impact relied on the audience's understanding that this was a real event, 'founded on a fact.' This position aligned with the advice Joshua Reynolds gave in his Seventh Discourse: 'The natural appetite or taste of the human mind is for Truth.' In addition to the painting's title, a number of newspapers printed a detailed narrative--generally accepted as Watson's account--which further demonstrates the artist's and patron's desire to control how the audience should interpret the image. While the exhibition began with the depiction of an event that remained outside the general public's awareness, Copley and Watson seemed intent on shaping their understanding of it through text and image (Clancy, 2012).

The painting caused a sensation at the Royal Academy, where it was exhibited in 1778 under the exceptionally explanatory title “A boy attacked by a shark, and rescued by some seamen in a boat; founded on a fact which happened in the harbour of the Havannah.” Audiences shocked by the painting’s dramatic and grisly content were even more amazed by the novel treatment of a true event, an approach only seen previously in Benjamin West’s 1770 work The Death of General Wolfe. Critics complimented Copley’s masterful telling of a tale focusing on the heroism of common men. Citing a 1778 newspaper review in which the author gives a detailed account of the story and concludes that the rescuers “nobly exerted themselves,” historian Louis P. Masur writes:

“For this writer, the story is one of heroic action in the face of terror, of compassion for the sufferer in the face of insatiable greed and cosmic indifference. It is the story of a few… common men who worked together and ‘nobly exerted themselves.’ Literally history from below, the painting reenacts a pitched battle between demons from the depths and men who labor just above the surface. In this horrifying instant, history is democratized and the anonymous seaman are shown to be as deserving as any general of the temporal and spiritual rewards of virtuous, selfless action.”

Watson’s story is one we see repeated in the narratives of contemporary shark attack survivors. In interviews, survivors often describe themselves as having been in the wrong place at the wrong time; unfortunate victims of chance who were freed from certain death by their own strength or by the bravery of others, who nonetheless persevere and live happy and full lives. The gory details of these narratives shock and excite us, much the way they did audiences in 1778. They also comfort us by providing a sense of agency in an unpredictable and chaotic world. When we see individuals conquer unfathomable terrors, we entertain the idea that we too could persevere if faced with a similar challenge. (Masur, 1994)

Upon his death, Watson bequeathed Copley’s painting to Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school for underprivileged children, in hopes it would provide “a most useful Lesson to Youth.” Watson does not describe what useful lesson the painting might impart, but given his personal history, we can deduce his intentions. (Masur, 1994) 

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