|Watson and the Shark (1778)|
John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas | 71 11/16 in. x 90 7/16 in.
National Gallery of Art, Washington
As we fight the sweltering heat of summer and dream of cooling off in the refreshing waters of the ocean, I can't help but hear the dramatic music from the movie, "Jaws." Before each shark attack, that ominous sound begins to stir, knowing something evil is about to happen. When visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, you should seek out the painting, "Watson and the Shark." At nearly 6 feet high and 8 feet long, this giant depiction of a real-life event will make you squirm.
In 1749, 14-year-old Brook 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. The painting 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. John Singleton Copley’s dramatic rendering of the shark attacking Watson caused a sensation when it was exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1778.
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.
Watson went on to have a successful business and political career and very likely commissioned the painting. He eventually bequeathed the painting of his adolescent triumph over adversity to a London school for disadvantaged youth, believing it would offer moral inspiration.
Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington