Overview

Watson and the Shark's exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778 generated a sensation, partly because such a grisly subject was an absolute novelty. In 1749, 14–year–old Brook Watson had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. Copley's pictorial account of the traumatic ordeal shows nine seamen rushing to help the boy, while the bloody water proves he has just lost his right foot. To lend equal believability to the setting Copley, who had never visited the Caribbean, consulted maps and prints of Cuba.

The rescuers' anxious expressions and actions reveal both concern for their thrashing companion and a growing awareness of their own peril. Time stands still as the viewer is forced to ponder Watson's fate. Miraculously, he was saved from almost certain death and went on to become a successful British merchant and politician.

Although Copley underscored the scene's tension and immediacy, the seemingly spontaneous poses actually were based on art historical precedents. The harpooner's pose, for example, recalls Raphael's altarpiece of the Archangel Michael using a spear to drive Satan out of heaven. The oil painting's enormous acclaim ensured Copley's appointment to the prestigious Royal Academy, and he earned a fortune selling engravings of its design.

Inscription

center left, inside boat: JSCopley.P.1778-

Marks and Labels

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Provenance

Brook Watson [1735-1807], London and East Sheen, Surrey; bequeathed to Christ's Hospital, London;[1] purchased 1963 by NGA.

Exhibition History

1778
Royal Academy, London, 1778, no. 65.
1857
Art Treasures of the United Kingdom: Paintings by Modern Masters, Art Treasures Palace, Manchester, 1857, unnumbered in catalogue, p. 82.
1946
American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, Tate Gallery, London, 1946, no. 49.
1951
The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, 1796-1868, The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1951-1952, no. 420.
1965
John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1965-1966, no. 68a (shown only in Washington).
1968
Royal Academy of Arts Bicentenary Exhibition, 1768-1968, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968-1969, no. 505.
1988
Bilder aus der Neuen Welt, Amerikanische Malerei des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin; Kunsthaus, Zürich, 1988-1989, no. 7.
1990
Facing History; The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1990, unnumbered.
1992
John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark", The Detroit Institute of Arts; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1992-1993, brochure, cover and fig. 1.
1995
John Singleton Copley in England, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995-1996, no. 4, repro.
2009
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009-2010, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 100.

Bibliography

n.d.
Perkins, Augustus Thorndike. Supplementary List of Paintings by John Singleton Copley. Boston, n.d.: 9.
1778
"A Young Painter," [Letter to the Editor.] The General Advertiser, and Morning Intelligencer, 19 May 1778.
1778
_The General Advertiser, and Morning Intelligencer, 27 April 1778.
1778
_The General Evening Post, 28-30 April 1778.
1778
_The Morning Chronicle, and London Advertiser, 25 April 1778.
1778
_The Morning Post, and Daily Advertiser (London), 25 April 1778.
1778
_The Public Advertiser, 28 April 1778.
1778
_The St. James's Chronicle; or, British Evening-Post, 25-30 April 1778.
1796
Pasquin, Anthony. Memoirs of the Royal Academicians. London, 1796: 136-137.
1824
Neal, John. [Essay on American Art] Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 16 (August 1824). Reprinted in Observations on Amer. Art, Selections ... Writings of John Neal (1793- 1876). H. Dickson, ed. State College, PA., 1943: 26-27.
1829
Knapp, Samuel L. Lectures on American Literature, with Remarks on some Passages of American History. New York, 1829: 191.
1829
Lieber, Francis, ed. Encyclopaedia Americana, 13 vols. Philadelphia, 1829-1833: 3 (1830): 520.
1832
Cunningham, Allan. The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. London, 1829-1833: 5 (1832):177-178.
1834
Dunlap, William. A History of the Rise and Progress of The Arts of Design in the United States. 2 vols. Reprinted in 3. New York, 1969: 1:106, 116-118, 120, 127.
1834
Trollope, William. A History of the Royal Foundation of Christ's Hospital. London, 1834: 353.
1841
Everett, Edward. "Curiousity Baffled." The Boston Book. Boston, 1841: 228-248.
1847
Tuckerman, Henry T. Artist-Life: or Sketches of American Painters. New York and Philadelphia, 1847: 25-26.
1867
Tuckerman, Henry T. Book of the Artists: American Artist Life. New York and London, 1867: 78-79.
1873
Perkins, Augustus Thorndike. A Sketch of the Life and a List of Some of the Works of John Singleton Copley. Boston, 1873: 20-21, 128.
1882
Amory, Martha Babcock. The Domestic and Artistic Life of John Singleton Copley, R.A.. Boston, 1882: 70-75.
1905
Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904. 8 vols. London, 1905-1906: 2:159.
1905
Isham, Samuel. The History of American Painting. New York, 1905: 26, 38.
1913
Graves, Algernon. A Century of Loan Exhibitions, 1813-1912. 5 vols. London, 1913-1915: 1(1913):206.
1915
Bayley, Frank W. The Life and Works of John Singleton Copley. Boston, 1915: 253-254.
1924
Webster, J. Clarence. Sir Brook Watson, Friend of the Loyalists. Sackville, New Brunswick, 1924.
1937
Allan, George A. T. Christ's Hospital. London and Glasgow, 1937: 67-68.
1938
Cunningham, Charles C. "Introduction." John Singleton Copley, 1738-1815; Loan Exhibition of Paintings, Pastels, Miniatures and Drawings Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1938: 12-13.
1938
Wind, Edgar. "The Revolution in History Painting." Journal of the Warburg Institute 2 (1938/1939): 119.
1943
Mayor, A. Hyatt. "Early American Painters in England." Proceedings of the American Philosphical Society 87, no. 1 (July 1943): 107.
1943
Soby, James Thrall and Dorothy C. Miller. Romantic Painting in America. Exh. cat. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943: 9.
1946
_American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day. Exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, 1946: no. 49.
1947
Richardson, Edgar P. "Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley." Art Quarterly 10, no. 3 (Summer 1947): 213-218, fig. 3.
1951
_The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy, 1796-1868. Exh. cat. The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1951-1952: no. 420.
1953
_The Christ's Hospital Book. London, 1953: repro. opp. 280.
1953
Waterhouse, Ellis. Painting in Britain, 1530 to 1790. Baltimore, Maryland, 1953: 160, 203, pl. 172.
1956
Richardson, Edgar P. Painting in America. New York, 1956: 94, 316.
1965
_John Singleton Copley, Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1965-1966: no. 68a.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:396, color repro.
1966
Prown, Jules David. John Singleton Copley. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966: 2: 267-274, 298, 387, 459-461, fig. 371.
1968
_Royal Academy of Arts Bicentenary Exhibition, 1768-1968. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968-1969: no. 505.
1970
_American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 46, repro.
1974
Gerdts, William H. The Great American Nude. New York, 1974: detail repro. 33, 38.
1975
Paulson, Ronald. Emblem and Expression; Meaning in English Art of the Eighteenth Century. London, 1975: 202-203 repro.
1975
Stein, Roger B. Seascape and the American Imagination. New York, 1975: 18, 20, 112, color repro. opp. 32, pl. 1.
1975
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 392, color repro. 393.
1976
Stein, Roger B. "Copley's Watson and the Shark and Aesthetics in the 1770s." In Calvin Israel, ed., Discoveries and Considerations. Essays on Early American Letters and Aesthetics, Presented to Harold Jantz. Albany, 1976: 85-130, repro. 88.
1977
Jaffe, Irma B. "John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark." American Art Journal 9, no. 1 (May 1977): 15-25, repro.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 74-75, pl. 44.
1979
Abrams, Ann Uhry. "Politics, Prints and John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark." Art Bulletin 61, no. 2 (June 1979): 265-276.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 95, pl. 83.
1980
_American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 139, repro.
1980
Kemp, Martin. [Letter to the Editor]. ArtB 62, no. 4 (December 1980): 647.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 48, color repro. 49.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 10, 13, no. 5, color repro.
1981
Williams 1981, 30-31, repro. 32-33, color repro. 46.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 388, no. 552, color repro.
1986
Reader's Digest Services. Sharks: Silent Hunters of the Deep. Sydney and New York, 1986: 132-135.
1987
Wilmerding, John. American Marine Painting. Rev. ed. of A History of American Marine Painting, 1968. New York, 1987: 33-35, color repro. 32.
1988
_Bilder aus der Neuen Welt, Amerikanische Malerei des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts, Exh. cat. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Nationalgalerie, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin; Kunsthaus, Zürich, 1988-1989: no. 7.
1988
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 56, no. 5, color repro.
1989
Boime, Albert. "Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters; Visual Encodings of Racism in Copley and Homer." Smithsonian Studies in American Art (Winter 1989): 18-47, color repro. fig. 1.
1989
Honour, Hugh. The Image of the Black in Western Art. Vol. 4. From the American Revolution to World War I, Part I: Slaves and Liberators. Cambridge, Mass., 1989: 37-41, figs. 6-7.
1990
Boime, Albert. The Art of Exclusion; Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. Washington, 1990: 20-36, color repro. after xvi.
1990
_Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940. Exh. cat. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1990: unnumbered.
1992
_American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 150, repro.
1992
Busch, Werner. "Copley, West, and the Tradition of European High Art." In American Icons; Transatlantic Perspectives on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century American Art. Edited by Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Heinz Ickstadt. Santa Monica, CA, 1992: 34-59.
1992
Gaehtgens, Thomas W. and Heinz Ickstadt, eds. American Icons, Transatlantic Perspectives on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century American Art. Santa Monica, 1992: 35-59, repro.
1992
_National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 211, repro.
1993
Miles, Ellen G. "Copley's Watson and the Shark." Antiques 143, no. 1 (January 1993): 162-171, repro.
1995
_John Singleton Copley in England. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1995-1996: no. 4.
1995
Miles, Ellen G. American Paintings of the Eighteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1995: 54-71, color repro. 57.
1995
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York, 1995: 946, fig. 26-23.
1999
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. 2 vols. Revised ed. New York, 1999: 949, fig. 26-24.
1999
Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 390, color repro.
2000
Kirsh, Andrea, and Levenson, Rustin S. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies, vol. 1. New Haven, 2000: 187, 190, fig. 200, 201.
2001
Southgate, M. Therese. The Art of JAMA II: Covers and Essays from The Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago, 2001: 122-123, color repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 288-289, no. 233, color repro.
2011
Pergam, Elizabeth A. The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857: Entrepreneurs, Connoisseurs and the Public. Farnham and Burlington, 2011: 313.
2011
Roberts, Jennifer L. "Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party." Art History" 10, no. 4 (September 2011): 625, 675-695, color fig. 2, 14.
2012
Brock, Charles. “George Bellows: An Unfinished Life.” In George Bellows ed. Charles Brock (Exh. cat. Washington 2012). Munich, 2012: 11.
2013
Neff, Emily Ballew and Kaylin H. Weber. "American Adversaries: Benjamin West & John Singleton Copley (Houston, Texas)." American Art Review 25, no. 6 (November-December 2013): 88, 91, color fig.

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