Grade Level: 5–8
Students will learn the story of young Brook Watson who lost his leg to a shark attack. By re-enacting the stances and feelings of his rescuers, they will come up with a list of adjectives to create a class definition of a hero/heroine. Then, they will create their own crest with personal symbols using Watson’s coat of arms as their inspiration.
John Singleton Copley
Watson and the Shark, 1778
oil on canvas, 182.1 x 229.7 cm (71 11/16 x 90 7/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund
|2-C||Students select and use the qualities of structures and functions of art to improve communication of their ideas.|
|3-A||Students integrate visual, spatial, and temporal concepts with content to communicate intended meaning in their artworks.|
|3-B||Students use subjects, themes, and symbols that demonstrate knowledge of contexts, values, and aesthetics that communicate intended meaning in artworks.|
What is going on in the painting? What do you think happened just before this moment?
In 1749, fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, a young English cabin boy, was attacked by a shark while swimming in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. Nine sailors rushed to help the boy and saved him from almost certain death, though he lost his right leg to the knee.
Watson grew up to be an important merchant and, briefly, Lord Mayor of London. He did not want his story of danger, courage, and survival to be forgotten. He asked John Singleton Copley, an American artist working in London, to paint this picture as a record of the events. Copley, America’s most important colonial painter, had traveled to Europe in 1774 to study art in Rome and other cities. To escape the hostilities of the American Revolution and for artistic reasons, he and his family settled permanently in England. During his stay in London, he received many painting commissions, including this one from Brook Watson.
Watson and the Shark created a sensation when it was exhibited, in part because the subject was so grisly. To lend believability to the scene Copley, who had never visited the Caribbean, consulted maps and prints of Cuba. It’s unlikely that he painted the shark from life or from prints because he erroneously painted an ear on the beast. On the frame of the painting an inscription relates the story and states Watson’s wish that this painting “might serve a most useful lesson to youth” about the risks of foolish behavior.
Students will develop a class definition of a hero/heroine:
Brook Watson’s Crest
Throughout his life, Watson enjoyed telling stories of his horrible encounter with the shark. When he became a baronet in 1803, he even requested that his coat of arms include literal references to the ordeal. The Latin motto Scuto Divino means "under God's protection." Neptune, god of the sea, is shown at the top, holding a trident to repel the attacking shark, and in the upper left corner of the shield is Watson's missing foot.
Taking cues from Watson’s crest, have students write/sketch a list of symbols that represent their lives: hobbies, personality traits, pets, life events, or perhaps they too have overcome an obstacle like Watson. With their writing and sketching as their guide, students will create a coat of arms incorporating these personal symbols. Using the “Design Your Own Coat of Arms” template, students can choose to have four symbols separated into quadrants or combine them into a cohesive design. They may wish to cut out their sketches and rearrange them to get the best composition before drawing their final coat of arms. Lastly, they should enter a personal motto in the banner at the bottom (maybe even research one in Latin!)
Borrow the teaching packet Art&
Research more heroes and heroines—artists, environmentalists, lifesavers, animals, peacemakers, poets, etc.—at the MY HERO Project
Learn more about hero and heroine myths from around the world at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Download a family-oriented guide about John Singleton Copley