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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley

"Watson and the Shark" by John Singleton Copley

“Watson and the Shark”

by John Singleton Copley

“Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley depicts the rescue of the boy from a shark attack in Havana harbour, Cuba. Based on a true story of an attack that took place in 1749, the English boy Brook Watson, then a 14-year-old cabin boy, lost his leg in the attack and was not rescued until the third attempt by the shark, which is the subject of the painting. The shark attack on Watson resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee. However, he went on to have a distinguished career including becoming a Lord Mayor of London.

Watson, while swimming alone in Havana harbour, was attacked by a shark and the shark attacked twice before Watson was rescued. The first time, the shark removed flesh from below the calf of Watson’s right leg; the second time, it bit off his right foot at the ankle. Watson was rescued before the third attack by his shipmates, but his leg had to be amputated below the knee. Watson recuperated in a Cuban hospital and recovered before returning to Boston.

Many years later when Watson returned to London and became friends with the artist John Singleton Copley,  Watson commissioned him to create a painting of the 1749 event, and Copley produced three versions. It was Copley’s first of a series of large-scale historical paintings that Copley would concentrate on after settling in London. The picture is highly romanticised with the bloody detail of the injuries hidden beneath the waves. The figure of Watson was influenced by a statue in the Louvre and by Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, and the growing popularity of romantic painting.

Copley painted three versions, the first, of 1778, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., a second, full-size replica is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a third, smaller, version with a vertical composition is in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Brook Watson

Sir Brook Watson (1735 – 1807) was a British merchant, soldier, and later Lord Mayor of London. Born in Plymouth, England, he was orphaned at the age six and was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Boston, Massachusetts. Watson had expressed his interest in the sea, so his uncle signed him up as a crew member on one of his merchant ships, before the age of 14. After the shark attack, Watson returned to Boston and became successful in a career that combined military posts and mercantile opportunities.

In 1759 Watson returned to London to continue his mercantile career and became a successful merchant. Watson became a member of the original committee of the Corporation of Lloyds of London in 1772 and later served for ten years as its chairman. Watson was made a baronet in 1803, and his coat of arms was designed to reference his ordeal with the shark. Underneath Neptune brandishing his trident, the shield bears Watson’s severed right leg, with the Latin motto ‘Under God’s Protection’.

John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815) was an Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, he is famous for his portrait paintings of wealthy and influential figures in colonial New England. His portraits were innovative in their tendency to portray artefacts relating to these individuals’ lives.

Copley sailed in 1774 for London where he connected with Benjamin West another American born painter who together created a new kind of history painting, one with modern and current subjects. Copley also met Sir Joshua Reynolds and between 1776 and 1815 he sent forty-three paintings to exhibitions of the Royal Academy, of which he was elected an associate member. His election to full membership occurred in 1783.

Copley was the greatest and most influential painter in colonial America, producing about 350 works of art. Boston’s Copley Square and Copley Plaza bear his name, as do Copley Township, Summit County, Ohio and Copley crater on Mercury. A 5-cent stamp commemorating John Singleton Copley was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1965, the 150th anniversary of his death.

Reflections

  • Did this picture have the same thriller impact two hundred years ago, as the Jaws Movies have in modern times?
  • The artist was not very familiar with sharks.

Watson and the Shark

  • Title:               Watson and the Shark
  • Artist:             John Singleton Copley
  • Date:              1778
  • Medium:        Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:   Height: 182.1 cm (71.6 ″); Width: 229.7 cm (90.4 ″)
  • Museum:        National Gallery of Art, Washinton DC

John Singleton Copley

Explore the National Gallery of Art, DC

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“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
– William Shakespeare

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Photo Credit: 1) John Singleton Copley [Public domain]

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