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Conversations: Kerry James Marshall and John Singleton Copley

Now on View

November 18, 2023 – January 31, 2025
West Building, Main Floor - Gallery 60B

Two centuries apart, American artists John Singleton Copley and Kerry James Marshall pushed the boundaries of history painting.

A special installation brings together three monumental paintings for a thought-provoking dialogue: Copley’s 18th-century canvas Watson and the Shark and Marshall’s two 20th-century works Great America and Voyager. These paintings—all maritime-themed—address the violent history of the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, the forced journey of enslaved people across the Atlantic.

All three works are part of the National Gallery of Art collection, but this is a rare chance to experience them together in the same exhibition space, in conversation. Compare how Marshall and Copley skillfully wove historical and contemporary events together with cultural, mythological, and spiritual allusions. Take a closer look at these iconic paintings and explore a selection of Marshall's related drawings for a glimpse into his process.

This is the second installation in our Conversations series, which connects works in our collection from our past and present to reveal how artists help us understand our place in history.

Featured works

A man and a woman with black skin stand in a sage and olive-green boat that comes toward us on a wavy, dripping band of cobalt blue that spans the lower edge of this loosely hanging, square canvas. The word “WANDERER” is written in white capital letters along the bow of the boat. Closer to us, in the boat, a woman is seen from the hips up. An oval, cloud-like form covers her torso, shoulders, and the area behind her head. It is white with rose-pink swirls, and has a few black lines creating scallops around the edge. A black shape at her waist, just over a cobalt-blue skirt, could indicate that at least one arm is bent behind her back. The penis, thighs, and knees of a man are seen between the boat and the triangular, pale lilac-purple sail. The sail is painted with long, curling strokes of violet purple up its center. A long, white pennant with two gold stars flutters from the boat’s burgundy-red mast, which has a crosspiece just below the pennant. The water is painted with strokes of royal blue, which partially drip over a white skull at the lower center. The boat is set against a background layered in washes of white, shell pink, and baby blue, with swirls and thin strokes of brick red scattered across it. A yellow sun outlined in deeper gold peeks above the horizon in the lower left, and is repeated with more orbs that together make an arc that curves to the upper right corner. A few geometric line drawings hover next to the woman, on our left, such as a compass-like cross with a crosshatched oval at each end. A black number "1" floats in the lower left, above the water, and a black number "7" floats near the upper left. Two more black sevens float near the upper right, next to another heart-shaped line drawing. The background transitions from the pale washes to darker orbs of pink and blue, that overlap a band of black that nearly spans the top edge. In that upper zone, a black, gold, and red compass floats near the top of the mast, to our left. A sheet with anatomical illustrations hangs from the left arm of the mast. The drawings show cell clusters and human fetuses, some circled in red. A second drawing of a house circled in lilac purple hangs on the right arm, next to a third drawing of concentric circles.

Kerry James Marshall, Voyager, 1992, acrylic and collage on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Women’s Committee of the Corcoran Gallery of Art), 2014.79.52

We look onto the side of a rowboat crowded with nine men trying to save a pale, nude young man who flails in the water in front of us as a shark approaches, mouth agape, from our right in this horizontal painting. In the water, the man floats with his chest facing the sky, his right arm overhead and the other stretched out by his side. Extending to our left, his left leg is bent and the right leg is straight, disappearing below the knee. His long blond hair swirls in the water and he arches his back, his wide-open eyes looking toward the shark behind him. To our right, the shark rolls up out of the water with its gaping jaws showing rows of pointed teeth. In the boat, eight of the men have light or tanned complexions, and one man has dark brown skin. The man with brown skin stands at the back center of the boat, and he holds one end of a rope, which falls across the boat and around the upper arm of the man in the water. Another man stands at the stern of the boat, to our right, poised with a long, hooked harpoon over the side of the boat, ready to strike the shark. His long dark hair blows back and he wears a navy-blue jacket with brass buttons, white breeches, blue stockings, and his shoes have silver buckles. Two other men wearing white shirts with blousy sleeves lean over the side of the boat, bracing each other as they reach toward the man in the water. An older, balding man holds the shirt and body of one of this pair and looks on, his mouth open. The other men hold long oars and look into the water with furrowed brows. The tip of a shark’s tail slices through the water to our right of the boat, near the right edge of the canvas. Along the horizon line, which comes three-quarters of the way up the composition, buildings and tall spires line the harbor. The masts of boats at port creates a row of crosses against the light blue sky. Steely gray clouds sweep across the upper left corner of the canvas and the sky lightens to pale, butter yellow at the horizon.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1

Four people with black skin are squeezed into a narrow boat on bright, turquoise-colored water that nearly fills this stylized, square painting. All four sides of the unstretched canvas are lined with six gromets spaced along each edge. The boat approaches a carnival-like tunnel near the upper right corner. Cartoon ghosts loom at the tunnel entrance and a translucent, veil-like ghost hovers over the left half of the painting. The horizon comes almost to the top of the canvas, where white clouds float against an azure-blue sky. A long, lemon-yellow line curls back and forth in a tight, curving zigzag pattern that widens out from a tiny sun setting on the horizon. A red cross on a white field floats near the upper left. At the top center, the word “WOW” appears in white letters within a crimson-red, bursting speech bubble with long trailing tendrils, like an exploded firework. Below the boat and against the water to our right, the word “FUN” has been overlaid with a white square so the tall, white letters are barely visible. The words “GREAT AMERICA” appear in a curling banner across the bottom half of the painting.

Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2011.20.1

Kerry James Marshall, Study for "Great America" (Under Water), c. 1994, pen and blue ink on coated paper, Gift of the Artist, 2014.12.2

Kerry James Marshall, Study for "Great America", c. 1994, pen and black ink on graph paper, Gift of the Artist, 2014.12.1

Kerry James Marshall, Final study for "Great America", c.1994, black conté crayon on wove paper, Gift of the Artist, 2014.12.10

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Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Admission is always free and passes are not required

Banner detail: Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2011.20.1; John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund, 1963.6.1