"Watson and the Shark" by Copley

I want to write a blog post on Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778, shown left) for my friend “e.” She has been a long-time reader of this blog, and due to some significant changes in her life, she won’t be able to get online and read blogs for some time. She particularly likes this painting, so I thought this post would be a fitting tribute to her.

This painting is interesting to me for several reasons. First of all, this painting is interesting because Copley probably had never seen a shark when he painted this scene!1 In fact, at least one contemporary critic sensed there was some inaccuracy in the way the shark was depicted, saying that the shark “bore no resemblance to any creature on earth.”2 I wouldn’t go that far (!) – but I don’t think that the shark is perfectly realistic.

In addition, the I think subject matter of this painting is interesting since it is based on an actual historical event. In 1749, a fourteen year old boy named Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. The shark struck twice, consuming Watson’s right foot and flesh from his right calf (notice in the painting that Watson’s right leg eerily disappears at the bottom of the canvas). Copley depicts the moment where Watson was saved by rescuers, just as the shark was rearing for a third strike. Watson’s leg was amputated just above the knee.

Watson managed with a wooden leg (as can be seen an etching of Watson created by Robert Dighton in 1803). He eventually became a successful merchant, and it is likely that he commissioned Copley to paint this scene for him, since Watson owned the painting at the time of his death.3 Honestly, I’m quite surprised that Watson wanted a have a painting which depicted such a traumatic event in his life! If I was ever attacked by a shark, I don’t know if I would want the event immortalized in oil and canvas!

This painting holds some significance art historically, since it depicts a real-life event in the tradition of “history paintings.” Typically, history paintings (which were considered to be the most important type of painting by artistic academies) consisted of biblical or mythological scenes. Copley breaks from the traditional representations of history paintings by depicting an obscure event from recent history.4 He even elevates this obscure event by depicting it on a grand-scale: the large canvas is approximately 5′ 7″ x 7′ 6″ (182.1 cm × 229.7 cm).

If you’re interested in learning a little bit more about Watson and the Shark, check out this mini-site that is maintained by the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC).

1 For more examples of art that was created without the artist having seen the animal beforehand, see my prior post, “The artist had never seen a [insert animal] before.”

2 Louis P. Masur, “Reading Watson and the Shark,” in The New England Quarterly 67, no. 3 (Sept. 1994): 437.

3 Ibid., 434.

4 Ibid., 436-37.

  • e says:

    M, this post is probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. Thank you!

    I know it is obvious, but I really enjoy Copley's work. I think there's just something about his technique that really speaks to me. He was very talented and I agree with you: the shark isn't that bad!

    I was reading the info from the National Gallery from the link you provided and it has a lot of really interesting tidbits. The site mentions how Copley really went outside the standards of "history paintings" for colonial times by painting Watson nude.
    I think it's really neat that Copley was groundbreaking.

    I also have to echo what you said on the size of the painting: it is HUGE. Matter of fact, I stumbled upon it at the National Gallery as I was leaving — I looked down a particular hallway and noticed an extraordinarily large painting and went to investigate. What a treat to discover what it was!

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Copley of course was to revert to more traditional subject matter in the extraordinarily successful 'Death of Chatham' (ex. 1781) and to make his own the group-portrait as idealized narrative of imperial destiny. (Watson was a significant agent of empire also, being the Commissary General to the British forces in North America and later Europe, parliament voted Watson's wife an annuity of £500 for life in return for his services.) He was created a baronet in 1803 and this incident was the prominent feature of his coat of arms : underneath Neptune brandishing his trident, the shield bears Watson's severed right leg, with the motto Scuto Divino ('Under God's Protection') below.

    Alas I can not find a reproduction of the striking inscribed frame, from c. 1820, made when the work was first hung in the Great Hall of Christ’s Hospital, which turned this idealized personal salvation narrative into a general exemplar to youth, Watson was Lord Mayor of London in 1796. A very different message from that of the inscription to the engraved version of 1779. http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=1506234&partid=1

  • heidenkind says:

    I love this painting! And the site you linked to is great.

    I still want to know what classical figure Watson was modeled after. I know the site gives a few suggestions but I don't find them 100% convincing.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    On the general question of artists painting animals they may (or may not) have seen, see Gombrich's "Art and Illusion," where he talks about improbable looking whales and rhinos (Durer!).

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    e: I'm glad that you liked the post! You've been such a great supporter of me and this blog, I wanted to do something special for you. And yeah, it's fun to think about how thing painting was so groundbreaking. I think people are often drawn to this painting because of its size and subject matter, but it's also fun to think about how this painting was also significant in terms of art history.

    Michael Robinson, thanks so much for your comment! You've added some very important details about Copley and Watson's lives. I wasn't aware of Watson's coat of arms; how interesting that he refers to the shark attack with his severed leg!

    Also, it's been a long time since I've seen the painting in person, and I completely forgot about the inscribed frame. Thank you for mentioning that. And thanks for scouting out some images of the frame, The Ancient!

    heidenkind: I'm not completely convinced by any of their ideas, either. The comparison that I think is most interesting, though, is the one between Watson's pose and that of the young boy (who is possessed with devils) in Raphael's Transfiguration of Christ. It would be fun to do more research on that topic, though.

    Ben, thanks for the tip! I was familiar with the example of Durer's rhinoceros, but I didn't realize that Gombrich had elaborated on the topic of artists and "unseen" animals. I'll have to look into what Gombrich said!

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Thanks for the 'shout out'- below is a link to Watson's entry in the old DNB:

  • H Niyazi says:

    Fascinating post M! I must admit I had not encountered this work before. It's also nice that you would do a post to honour one of your long time readers. I hope things turn out OK for 'e' and she is able to stay in touch.

    I can imagine some research must have gone into the depiction of the shark, because its not altogether fantastical in the way it is shown, just disproportionate in features.

    It is not improbable to surmise that Copley may have been working from descriptions provided by others. Spending some time with seafarers at a smoky tavern in exchange for some ale or coin would have landed him plenty of descriptions of sharks approximate features, which he then produced a composite from.

    I would be interesting to research available natural history texts and journals that would have contained drawings made by the men of science whom used to tag along on voyages. Im sure there would have been something on sharks – even back then.

    Historia style paintings based on relatively recent events are always fascinating. Perhaps the best known example from the Renaissance is Uccello's Battle of San Romano – though my personal favourite is from the 19thC -Gericault's Raft of the Medusa.


  • M says:

    Thanks for your comment, Hasan. You've brought up some interesting ideas of how Copley may have researched the appearance of sharks. I especially like your idea of natural history books and texts. The NPG website brings up one more idea: Copley may have had access to a set of shark jaws for a model. This would at least account for why the teeth look accurate, but the added-on lips look strange!

    I'm glad I could introduce you to a new painting!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.