John Singleton Copley born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1738 was considered one of the greatest American masters at his death in 1815 and is to this day. Copley studied with his stepfather, Peter Pelham, and frequented the studios of John Smibert and Robert Feke. By the age of twenty, Copley was considered to be a successful portrait painter with a mature style full of brilliance and clarity. He practiced in New York City, Philadelphia, and his hometown of Boston before visiting Italy and eventually settling in London, England.
John Singleton Copley’s interpretation of a horrifying disaster in Brooke Watson and the Shark stands out as a fantastic romanticized horror painting. Watson and the Shark, an oil on canvas painting, was completed in 1778. The painting stands 71.75 inches high and 90+ inches wide. The romantic painting was donated by the Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Watson and the Shark portrays a devastating event in the life of Brooke Watson. In the Bahamas at the age of fourteen, British-born Watson was out on a fishing expedition. According to Brooke, he fell overboard and was subsequently attacked by an enormous shark. With the help of the crew, Watson narrowly escaped the certain death that awaited. He did not, however escape unscathed. Brooke Watson was bitten in the leg by the man-eating shark.
John Singleton Copley makes great use of line, form, perspective, and space in his work. The audience is drawn in and captivated by the motion of the crew mates and the shark. The wind-blown hair and faces of desperation of the crew members emphasize the horror of the shark who seems to be lunging angrily forward to the helpless Watson. The viewer’s focus quickly becomes the mate thrusting his harpoon at the incredibly large shark. The West-Indian crewman throwing Watson a rope, as well as the other crew members reaching for Watson create an angle that sends the eyes of the viewer to witness the danger below. A peculiarly nude Brooke Watson and the shark complete the triangle made by the crew attempting to rescue him. Copley successfully portrays the seriousness and horror of the event at hand with the size of the shark in perspective to the boat. This is so well achieved that the shark and the boat dominate the canvas. The shark is at least twice the size of their small wooden vessel. The tail of the shark can be seen lashing far behind the boat, which also serves as an excellent indicator of his enormous size. Watson himself, while not portrayed as being frail, does appear significantly smaller that the members of the crew. His nudity serves to indicate his vulnerability to his would-be killer. Copley’s source of light seems to be of a divine nature. Light appears to come from unseen clouds and shines on Watson and his rescuers as if God were watching over them. The dark charcoal color of the shark disturbing the pure blue waters of the Carribean creating white caps around the boat help to indicate the urgency felt by those involved.
By using oil color, John Singleton Copley was able create an excellent sense of motion. By creating a transparent blue sea, Copley shows Brooke Watson’s hair washing nearly into the mouth of the shark. The viewer can witness the violent waves surrounding the danger and the deliberate thrust of the harpoon.
Brooke Watson commissioned Copley to re-create this event as decorative celebration of sorts. The painting is meant to tell the true story of a young boy’s mishap at sea. While accomplishing this task, the painting also celebrates his survival and triumph. Copley created this work at a time when his contemporaries Charles Willson Peale, John Durand, Joseph Blackburn were busy painting family and individual portraits. Even though Copley was also a portraitist, he added a certain flair and personality to all of his paintings. Watson and the Shark is definitely a stand-out among its peers. John Singleton Copley seems to be a genius before his time in creating this painting. He has created a work that is more readily peered by the paintings of the Grand Manner and romanticism styles of the Federal Period.
John Singleton Copley displays his education well in this painting. His portrayal of the shark is rather accurate, indicating that Copley studied the biological sciences and the anatomical make-up of sharks, an animal not found near any of his homes. Copley succeeded undeniably in rendering Watson’s tale of the sea and capturing the attention and sympathy of his audience.