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Watson and the Shark

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

John Singleton Copley painted three versions of his Watson and the Shark (1778), this is the second one. The ‘Watson’ in the title is a guy named Bruce Watson. He commissioned the piece after telling Copley the dramatic story of his rescue from a shark attack in Havana Harbor some 30 years before. His missing right leg lent his tale a heap of authenticity, I bet. Copley obscured that gory detail underwater in this version but it's more strongly implied in the original.

So you know Watson survived, but Copley staged his composition so well that a happy ending is far from certain. He managed to do that with a really effective use of diagonals. Follow one of them up to the right where two sailors attempt to rescue him. One is desperately attempting to fend the shark off with a harpoon and the other has flung Watson a rope. Follow the other diagonal as it cuts downward along the outstretched arms of two sailors reaching for Watson. The way he positioned the rescuers, we really aren't sure that he's going to be saved. The harpoon seems out of position to do much good and Watson isn't really close to grasping the rope. It doesn’t look like he’s going to see the extended hands in time, either. It's a testament to Copley's prowess that you feel anxiety for Watson's rescue even though you know he survived. Well done on Copley’s part. But though he knew how to capture tension and drama, he obviously knew a lot less about sharks. If you hadn’t already noticed, it has nostrils, lips, and forward-facing eyes. Sharks have none of those things. It’s such a glaring error that when I first saw the painting it didn’t immediately register that it was a shark. I think the consensus is that Copley had never seen a shark before. He had to rely on written or verbal descriptions and couple that with his own imagination. So the mistakes are not just forgivable, they are a window into the bygone world before photography existed. But I digress.

I didn’t post this because I consider it a particularly important painting. My reason is personal. We took a trip to Boston, Salem, and Plymouth this past Halloween. One of our stops was to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where this version of the painting hangs. It’s always risky taking a 5-year-old into a museum but Salem surprised me. She not only behaved very well, she even showed interest in some of the pieces. She didn’t seem to care for Duccio or Donatello. Monet didn’t blow her skirt up, either. But she sure liked this one. We sat in front of it and talked about it for probably 10 minutes. She counted the figures (and didn’t miss the sailor tucked away in the background!) and wondered why Watson was naked (probably her most profound question). And in a tribute to Copley’s suspenseful composition, she confidently predicted that the shark was going to get that naked man. I loved every second of being able to talk with my little girl about a painting she liked.

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