Painted during a tumultuous time in American history, John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark expresses the tension between imperial order and revolutionary chaos through the true story of a wealthy London merchant, Brook Watson, who lost his leg as a young man in a shark attack while swimming in Havana, Cuba. This painting shows Copley’s dedication to American subject matter and costume as well as to the Revolution despite the artist’s relocation from America to London.
This large painting depicts the dramatic moment of Watson’s rescue from the shark, who is coming in for its third attack upon the merchant. Lowly sailors are heroicized by Copley as one is positioned to spear the great shark (calling St. George slaying the dragon to mind), while others reach over the side and in the path of the shark’s open jaws to save the man. The rescuers bodies are positioned in a triangle shape, with a black slave holding a rope at the pinnacle. He is frozen with fear, signifying the emotional horror of the situation. Watson, naked and helpless, is dramatically lifted by a wave as he reaches toward his rescuers. Watson’s body is muscular and ghostly white. It shows no signs of being attacked by a shark, as there is no torn flesh or blood, which shows that Copley was influenced by the growing popularity of Romantic painting. The background is of the harbor in Havana, Cuba where a golden light spreads over the water and ships despite the horrific events that are unfolding in the water.
Painted during the American Revolution, the painting had political overtones regarding the Americans fight for freedom from the British. The dismembered body of Watson signified the damage done to the British Empire, as Watson’s severed leg stood for America breaking away from the body of the British Empire. When Watson and the Shark was exhibited in 1778, the war had taken a turn for the worst for Britain as France and American were allies and the British had lost some key battles, like the Battle of Saratoga. But Watson, symbolic of the British Empire, survived the attack and lived a successful life. Copley’s painting is optimistic for both parties as he believed that both Britain and America would prosper after the war was over. The golden light of the harbor is a promise of salvation and rebirth for both countries.