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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-

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
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.
1869
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 (1834): 1:106, 116-118, 120, 127.
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: The Story of 450 Years. 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. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966, vol. 2: pp. 267-274, 298, 387, 459-461, fig. 371, no. 1.
1968
Royal Academy of Arts Bicentenary Exhibition, 1768-1968. Exh. cat. Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1968-1969: no. 505.
1969
Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York, 1979: 42-42, fig. 1.27. (3rd. ed. Oxford, 2007: 22-23, fig. 1.9.)
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 46, repro.
1974
Gerdts, William H. The Great American Nude: A History in Art. 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, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 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 Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Materials and Meaning in the Fine Arts 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.
Explore This Work

The beautiful Boy, just disentangled from the ravenous bloody Monster, which had tore away one of his Legs, cries for that Assistance, which every one of the honest Tars hurries to give without Loss of Time.

“Royal Academy Exhibition,” Saint James’s Chronicle; or British Evening-Post (April 25–28, 1778): 4. 

John Singleton Copley’s dramatic rendering of a shark attacking 14-year-old Brook Watson caused a sensation when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1778. The pictured attack had occurred some 30 years earlier. Watson, an orphan, had unwisely decided to take a dip from a skiff while the ship on which he was crewing docked in Havana Harbor. A shark attacked him, biting his right leg and pulling him under. The boy surfaced briefly before the shark dragged him under a second time, severing his right foot. By the time Watson surfaced again, his mates had nearly reached him. Copley depicts the boy’s climactic rescue: just as the shark zeroed in for its third strike, a determined crewmate armed with a boat hook drove it away. 

Copley, an American artist who moved to London amid the tensions of the Revolutionary War, here takes the pictorial representation of terror to new heights. The injured Watson’s deathly pale body rises from the depths, naked and vulnerable, with blood swirling around his leg. As the huge shark’s gaping jaws close in, Watson looks back in shock and grasps futilely for the lifeline cast by a West African crewman, whose prominent position in the picture and sympathetic rendering were extraordinary for the time. Two shipmates stretch desperately to reach the boy flailing in the turbulent waters. The faces of the wind-whipped crewmen—derived from models of emotional expression developed by 18th-century French artist Charles LeBrun—convincingly register a range of responses: contempt (the harpooner); dread (the sailor at far left); compassion (the West African); and astonishment (the older sailor).

Comparison of sailors' faces with LeBrun engravings

The sailors' expressions are believed to have been modeled after engravings by seventeenth-century French artist Charles LeBrun, who published an influential book of facial expressions that inspired artists for the next three centuries.  

John Singleton CopleyWatson and the Shark (detail), 1778. Inset images: Charles Le BrunDread, Astonishment, Contempt , three engravings from Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l'expression générale et particulière, Paris, E. Picard, 1698. 

Copley imparted a broader meaning to the scene by casting Watson’s rescue as a then-modern tale of salvation, as it was viewed by Watson, who went on to a successful business and political career and very likely commissioned the painting. The harpooner is portrayed as a secular version of Saint Michael defeating the devil or of Saint George fighting the dragon, two legends often depicted in traditional painting. The shark here incarnates evil, its open jaws recalling the gaping mouth of hell. The boat, too, appears to be modeled after those in earlier representations of the New Testament’s miraculous “draught of fishes.” Such allusions to religion and art served to make a scene otherwise deemed too minor, sensationalist, and contemporary into a fitting subject for history painting. Watson eventually bequeathed the painting of his adolescent triumph over adversity to a London school for disadvantaged youth, believing it would offer moral inspiration. 

Slideshow: Images of Saint Michael, Saint George, and the "draught of fishes"

Watson and the Shark cemented Copley’s reputation. It challenged the stringent conventions of history painting and was an important progenitor of 19th-century romanticism. A full-scale copy that Copley made for himself is owned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The Copley Family

John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family, 1776/1777.

The artist portrayed himself turning away from a sheaf of his sketches to look at the spectator.

About the Artist

Boston-born John Singleton Copley was the foremost 18th-century American artist. Copley trained with his stepfather, an engraver who had emigrated from England, and by the late 1750s was well established as a portrait painter. A fastidious artist who eagerly stayed abreast of developments in English art, mostly through mezzotints, Copley soon earned wealth and fame for his sophisticated, penetrating, and accurate likenesses. When he married in 1769, he was prosperous enough to afford a 20-acre farm with three houses on Beacon Hill next to his friend John Hancock’s property. 

The political tensions that would soon trigger the Revolutionary War were bad for Copley’s business and his social life. He was a longtime friends of many radicals, including Hancock, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams, but his in-laws and many socially prominent clients were hard-core Loyalists. Reluctant to take sides, Copley instead took flight. He left Boston for Europe in early 1774, eager to see if his New World art met Old World standards. After studying in Italy for a year, Copley settled in England, where his family joined him, and launched his second career.

The Death of the Earl of Chatham

John Singleton Copley, The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1779

Copley continued to paint portraits to support his family, but his real ambition was to undertake narrative history painting, the equivalent of painting’s heavyweight division. Watson and the Shark, Copley’s first attempt, drew favorable attention despite upending the hallowed traditions of the genre by treating a recent event—sensational no less, not moral—in a contemporary rather than classical style and form. Based on this work and a portrait of his family from the year before, in 1779 Copley he won election to London’s prestigious Royal Academy.

Copley saw himself as both an artist and a historian, and he continued his success with two more innovative modern history paintings: The Death of the Earl of Chatham, which combines the tropes of history painting and portraiture, and the dynamic Death of Major Peirson (1782–1784). Copley began taking on larger projects, including one huge work, The Siege of Gibraltar (1783–1791), that took years to complete and was not warmly received; his reputation suffered as a result. 

By the 1790s his powers had started to decline and in the new century his work was considered unfashionable. He died of a stroke, debt-ridden, in 1815.

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