Watson and the Shark

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The original version, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1778, 182.1 x 229.7 cm Watsonandtheshark-original.jpg
The original version, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1778, 182.1 × 229.7 cm

Watson and the Shark is an oil painting by the American painter John Singleton Copley, depicting the rescue of the English boy Brook Watson from a shark attack in Havana, Cuba. Copley, then living in London, painted three versions. The first, of 1778, is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. A second, full-size replica is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a third, smaller, version with a more vertical composition (1782), now is in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Oil painting Process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.

John Singleton Copley American-born painter

John Singleton Copley was an Anglo-American painter, active in both colonial America and England. He was probably born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Richard and Mary Singleton Copley, both Anglo-Irish. After becoming well-established as a portrait painter of the wealthy in colonial New England, he moved to London in 1774, never returning to America. In London he met considerable success as a portraitist for the next two decades, and also painted a number of large history paintings, which were innovative in their readiness to depict modern subjects and modern dress. His later years were less successful, and he died heavily in debt.

Brook Watson Lord Mayor of London

Sir Brook Watson, 1st Baronet was a British merchant, soldier, and later Lord Mayor of London. He is perhaps most famous as the subject of John Singleton Copley's painting Watson and the Shark, which depicts a shark attack on Watson as a boy that resulted in the loss of his right leg below the knee.


The replica, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1778, same size. J S Copley - Watson and the Shark (Boston).jpg
The replica, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1778, same size.

The paintings are based on an attack that took place in Havana harbor in 1749. Brook Watson, then a 14-year-old cabin boy on the Royal Consort, [1] lost his leg in the attack and was not rescued until the third attempt, which is the subject of the painting. [2] Watson went on to become a Lord Mayor of London.

Cabin boy low ranking male employee who waits on the officers and passengers of a ship

A cabin boy or ship's boy is a boy who waits on the officers and passengers of a ship, especially running errands for the captain.

The Lord Mayor of London is the City's mayor and the leader of the City of London Corporation. Within the City of London, the Lord Mayor is accorded precedence over all individuals except the sovereign and retains various traditional powers, rights and privileges, including the title and style The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London.


Copley and Brook Watson became friends after the American artist arrived in London in 1774. Watson commissioned him to create a painting of the 1749 event, and Copley produced three versions. It was the first of a series of large-scale historical paintings that Copley would concentrate on after settling in London. The painting is romanticised: the gory detail of the injury is hidden beneath the waves, though there is a hint of blood in the water. The figure of Watson is based on the statue of the "Borghese Gladiator", by Agasias of Ephesus, in the Louvre. Other apparent influences are Renaissance art, and the ancient statue of Laocoön and his Sons , which Copley may have seen in Rome. Copley was probably also influenced by Benjamin West's The Death of General Wolfe , and the growing popularity of romantic painting.

Romanticism period of artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that started in 18th century Europe

Romanticism was an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century, and in most areas was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It was partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature—all components of modernity. It was embodied most strongly in the visual arts, music, and literature, but had a major impact on historiography, education, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. It had a significant and complex effect on politics, with romantic thinkers influencing liberalism, radicalism, conservatism and nationalism.

<i>Borghese Gladiator</i> Hellenistic sculpture

The Borghese Gladiator is a Hellenistic life-size marble sculpture portraying a swordsman, created at Ephesus about 100 BCE, now on display at the Louvre.

Louvre Art museum and Historic site in Paris, France

The Louvre, or the Louvre Museum, is the world's largest art museum and a historic monument in Paris, France. A central landmark of the city, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city's 1st arrondissement. Approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square metres. In 2018, the Louvre was the world's most visited art museum, receiving 10.2 million visitors.

The third smaller version,now in the Detroit Institute of Arts (1782, 91.4 cm/35.9 in x 77.5 cm/30.5 in) has a more vertical composition. John Singleton Copley - Watson and the Shark (Detroit).jpg
The third smaller version,now in the Detroit Institute of Arts (1782, 91.4 cm/35.9 in x 77.5 cm/30.5 in) has a more vertical composition.

The composition of the rescuers in the boat shows hints of Peter Paul Rubens's Jonah Thrown into the Sea, and both Rubens's Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Raphael's painting of the same name. The facial expressions show a marked resemblance to those in Charles Le Brun's Conférence de M. Le Brun sur l'expression générale et particulière, an influential work published in 1698; they portray a range of emotions, from fear to courage. Various elements of composition were changed as the painting progressed. Infrared analysis shows that the old boatswain was originally a young man, and preliminary sketches reveal that the black sailor at the rear of the boat, who also appears as the subject of Copley's Head of a Negro painted around the same time, was originally envisioned as a white man with long, flowing hair.

Peter Paul Rubens Flemish painter

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish artist. He is considered the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens's highly charged compositions reference erudite aspects of classical and Christian history. His unique and immensely popular Baroque style emphasized movement, color, and sensuality, which followed the immediate, dramatic artistic style promoted in the Counter-Reformation. Rubens specialized in making altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects.

Raphael 16th-century Italian painter and architect

Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael, was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity of form, ease of composition, and visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.

Charles Le Brun 17th-century French painter and art theorist

Charles Le Brun was a French painter, physiognomist, art theorist, and a director of several art schools of his time. As court painter to Louis XIV, who declared him "the greatest French artist of all time", he was a dominant figure in 17th-century French art and much influenced by Nicolas Poussin.

Copley had never visited Havana, and it is likely that he had never seen a shark, much less one attacking a person. He may have gleaned details of Havana harbour from prints and book illustrations: he includes the real landmark of Morro Castle in the background on the right. The shark is less convincing and includes anatomical features not found in sharks, such as lips, forward-facing eyes that resemble a tiger's more than a shark's and air blowing out from the animal's "nostrils".

Morro Castle (Havana) fortification

Morro Castle, named after the three biblical Magi, is a fortress guarding the entrance to Havana bay in Havana, Cuba. The design was drawn up by the Italian engineer Battista Antonelli; originally under the control of Spain, the fortress was captured by the British in 1762, and was returned to the Spanish under treaty terms a year later.

Nostril one of the two channels of the nose

A nostril is one of the two channels of the nose, from the point where they bifurcate to the external opening. In birds and mammals, they contain branched bones or cartilages called turbinates, whose function is to warm air on inhalation and remove moisture on exhalation. Fish do not breathe through their noses, but they do have two small holes used for smelling, which may, indeed, be called nostrils.

The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778. Copley produced a second, full-size replica for himself the same year, which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. His third and smaller version, with a vertical format produced by extending the view of the sky above, is in the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton, Canada) has a miniature version of this piece, attributed to Copley.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Art museum in Boston, MA

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, is the fifth largest museum in the United States. It contains more than 450,000 works of art, making it one of the most comprehensive collections in the Americas. With more than 1.2 million visitors a year, it is the 52nd most visited art museum in the world as of 2019.

Detroit Institute of Arts Art museum in Detroit, Michigan

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), located in Midtown Detroit, Michigan, has one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States. With over 100 galleries, it covers 658,000 square feet (61,100 m2) with a major renovation and expansion project completed in 2007 that added 58,000 square feet (5,400 m2). The DIA collection is regarded as among the top six museums in the United States with an encyclopedic collection which spans the globe from ancient Egyptian and European works to contemporary art. Its art collection is valued in billions of dollars, up to $8.1 billion according to a 2014 appraisal. The DIA campus is located in Detroit's Cultural Center Historic District, about two miles (3 km) north of the downtown area, across from the Detroit Public Library near Wayne State University.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery Art museum in Fredericton, New Brunswick

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is a public art gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. It is named after William Maxwell "Max" Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, who funded the building of the gallery and assembled the original collection. It opened in 1959 with over 300 works, including paintings by J.M.W. Turner and Salvador Dalí. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is New Brunswick's officially designated provincial art gallery. The building has undergone several expansions, the latest of which opened in 2017 via a design by Halifax-based MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. Former director Terry Graff stated that this "expansion and revitalization" aimed to make the gallery "an important destination for national and international contemporary art".

At his death, Watson bequeathed the 1807 painting to Christ's Hospital, with the hope that it would prove "a most usefull Lesson to Youth". In September 1819 the school's committee of almoners voted to accept the painting and place it in the great hall. The school later moved to Horsham, Sussex. In 1963, it sold the painting to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. [3]

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  1. Brayman, James (1852). "Escape from a shark". Thrilling adventures by land and sea. Being remarkable historical facts, gathered from authentic sources. G. H. Derby and co., Buffalo, N.Y. p. 89. Retrieved 19 August 2019. While lying in the harbor at Havana, it was very hot on board the Royal Consort, about four o'clock in the afternoon of the 14th July.
  2. "Copley's Watson and the Shark", Meg Floryan, Smarthistory, accessed December 20, 2012.
  3. "Provenance". National Gallery of Art, Washington. Retrieved 27 June 2011.

Further reading