Artworks
Watson and the Shark
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Contributor

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley is like one of those beach warning signs about shark activity in the area but much more expensive.

The kid in the picture about to be chomped by this massive shark is one Brook Watson. Aside from what it looks like in this picture, this is probably not even the worst day that he had ever had. Watson was an orphan, who was sent from England to live with a family member named Levens in Boston. Levens was a sea merchant so naturally, as Levens’ ward, Watson had to tag along. One day, while Levens’ boat was docked in Havana, Cuba, the fourteen-year-old Watson went for a little skinny dip in shark-infested waters. Why he decided this was a good idea we’ll never know. It was also beside the point. Almost as soon as Watson hit the water, he was attacked by a shark. With the first bite, Watson lost his foot and was dragged under water for a few minutes. The shark came back for seconds, pulling him underwater again. Realizing that it is rude to play with your food, the shark set out to finish off the kid. But just as the third bite was about to ensue, the crew of the boat was out there trying to save Watson. With two sailors reaching for him, not not looking like they were bobbing for apples, and another prepared to fight the shark with a harpoon, the painting is paused at the climax of the action. Drama!

Watson was saved from the water, had his leg amputated below the knee, and then went on to live a relatively normal life. He returned to England, became Lord Mayor of London at some point, made a ton of money, and subsequently commissioned Copley to paint this life-threatening moment. Copley had fled America in 1774 due to the Revolution, and spent the next year traveling in Italy to study Renaissance and Baroque art before settling in London. This commission was to be his first grand history painting, but what made it so pioneering was that it depicts a more contemporary subject rather than a biblical story or myth, and tackles a moment of struggle in an individual's life rather than heroics in some national upheaval. It made a stir when it was exhibited in 1778, and Copley was appointed to the Royal Academy after its success in 1799. This is one of three depictions of this scene in existence, because apparently one painting of the day your leg was bitten off and you almost died wasn’t enough. Aside from this version, Copley painted a replica just for himself to keep in his own studio. That one is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sources

Sources

  1. "The Shark Attack That Shook The 1700S." Narratively. 2014. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://narratively.com/the-shark-attack-that-shook-the-1700s/
  2. "Watson And The Shark." Dia.org. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.dia.org/art/collection/object/watson-and-shark-41300
  3. "Watson And The Shark." Nga.gov. 2018. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46471.html
  4. "John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Skark." Nga.gov. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.nga.gov/collection/highlights/copley-watson-and-the-shark.html
  5. "Watson and the Shark." Mfa.org. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/watson-and-the-shark-30998

Contributor

Brook Watson was a cabin boy on a trading ship who had superbly bad luck.

One day in 1749, while the ship was parked in Havana, Cuba, Watson slipped and fell overboard. Before his shipmates could rescue him, a passing shark took a bite out of his leg. In those days, amputations were even less fun than they are today, but Watson miraculously survived the procedure and spent the rest of his life telling everybody who would listen about his adventure.

Eventually he became a wealthy merchant and, under the rules of the English class system then in effect, he even became a baronet. This meant he got to create a coat of arms. To this day the Watson family emblem depicts king Neptune atop a shield with an image of the missing leg. I guess if you survive Jaws, you get bragging rights.

Copley on the other hand, can boast less in the shark department. The artist had either never seen a shark, or if he did he certainly forgot what they look like, because in this painting the shark has forward looking eyes, lips, and nostrils. The monster is looking less monstrous than it is adorably human, and wouldn't seem out of place in a Katy Perry halftime show.