National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Watson and the Shark John Singleton Copley (painter)
American, 1738 - 1815
Watson and the Shark, 1778
oil on canvas
overall: 182.1 x 229.7 cm (71 11/16 x 90 7/16 in.) framed: 241.3 x 264.2 x 10.1 cm (95 x 104 x 4 in.)
Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund
1963.6.1
On View
From the Tour: John Singleton Copley
Object 8 of 12

This gripping pictorial drama resulted from a collaboration between Copley and Brook Watson, a former English sailor. When Watson was fourteen in 1749, he had been attacked by a shark while swimming in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The blood in the water proves that Watson already has lost his right foot. Rushing to his aid, his shipmates register many different reactions, ranging from heroism to horror. Watson fails to catch a rope hurled by a West Indian. Meanwhile, boathook poised, a harpooner takes aim at the man-eating monster. Copley grouped the rescuers into a dynamic composition that forms the silhouette of a sharply thrusting triangle.

Brook Watson bequeathed the painting to a London orphanage, where it conveyed the reassuring moral that anyone can succeed through “activity and exertion”—as stated by the biographical plaque on the original frame. In spite of being orphaned himself and also disabled, Watson had earned ennoblement as a baronet.

The depiction of a noteworthy event in an ordinary person’s life was an American innovation. European painters normally restricted such harrowing scenes to saints' martyrdoms. This unusual canvas caused a sensation that assured Copley’s international reputation after its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778. A full-scale replica that the artist painted for himself is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

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