Watson and the Shark's exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778 generated a sensation, partly because such a grisly subject was an absolute novelty. In 1749, 14–year–old Brook Watson had been attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. Copley's pictorial account of the traumatic ordeal shows nine seamen rushing to help the boy, while the bloody water proves he has just lost his right foot. To lend equal believability to the setting Copley, who had never visited the Caribbean, consulted maps and prints of Cuba.

The rescuers' anxious expressions and actions reveal both concern for their thrashing companion and a growing awareness of their own peril. Time stands still as the viewer is forced to ponder Watson's fate. Miraculously, he was saved from almost certain death and went on to become a successful British merchant and politician.

Although Copley underscored the scene's tension and immediacy, the seemingly spontaneous poses actually were based on art historical precedents. The harpooner's pose, for example, recalls Raphael's altarpiece of the Archangel Michael using a spear to drive Satan out of heaven. The oil painting's enormous acclaim ensured Copley's appointment to the prestigious Royal Academy, and he earned a fortune selling engravings of its design.


  • Title: Watson and the Shark
  • Date Created: 1778
  • Physical Dimensions: w2297 x h1821 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • painter: John Singleton Copley
  • Theme: profane, history
  • School: American
  • Provenance: Brook Watson [1735 1807], London and East Sheen, Surrey; bequeathed to Christ's Hospital, London;[1] purchased 1963 by NGA. [1] Watson's will, dated 12 August 1803, states: "I give and bequeath my Picture painted by Mr. Copley which represents the accident by which I lost my Leg in the Harbour of the Havannah in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Forty Nine to the Governors of Christs Hospital to be delivered to them immediately after the Decease of my Wife Helen Watson or before if she shall think proper so to do hoping the said worthy Governors will receive the same as a testimony of the high estimation in which I hold that most Excellent Charity and that they will allow it to be hung up in the Hall of their Hospital as holding out a most usefull Lesson to Youth." (Public Record Office, London; copy, NGA curatorial file). The school's committee of almoners voted 28 September 1819 to accept the painting and place it in the great hall (minutes of a meeting of the Board of Almoners, Christ's Hospital, 28 September 1819; extract, NGA curatorial file). The hospital was founded in London in 1553 and was moved to Horsham, Essex, in 1902; Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th ed., New York, 1910), 6: 295 296.

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