Barbara Metzger is a hard act to follow, so what better to do than show a shark.

This is one of my favorite paintings- Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, painted in 1778, the first of Copley’s “History Paintings.”

One copy of the painting (there are two, I believe) hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. I can remember seeing it when a child and now every time I go to the gallery, I must stop by and look at it.

It is a huge painting, a glorious and fearsome sight! I love the drama and emotion of it. The composition is ideal, making the eye travel from the highest figure with the pole to poor Watson, so bright in his nakedness and the shark, so sinister and murky.

The painting depicts a real event that took place in Havana, Cuba. Brook Watson, a 14 year old orphaned crewman, went for a swim and was attacked by a shark. In the painting, Copley successfully makes us wonder if his shipmates could save Watson. They did, although he lost a leg. Watson went on to become a London merchant and even served as mayor of London in 1796.

John Singleton Copley was an American who was urged to move to London by Joshua Reynolds and another American artist, Benjamin West. He and his family settled in London at the dawn of the American Revolution. Watson and the Shark was the painting that brought Copley his membership in the Royal Academy. By “our period” Copley’s works were no longer receiving critical acclaim, although he continued to live and work in England. He died in 1815.

Watson and the Shark appeared in the first book I ever wrote, an unpublished romantic suspense about a mental health social worker (I followed the advice of “write what you know”) who finds her favorite client dead of apparent suicide. The police detective charged with investigating the death believes her that the death was murder, not suicide. A print of Watson and the Shark hung in her office, as a reminder to clients that no matter how desperate and hopeless life becomes, there is always hope. (And, no, I did not have a print of Watson and the Shark in my office in the mental health center)

My pal Colleen Gleason (remember her book The Rest Falls Away and her interview here) told me about this wonderful website that offers art images free of any copyright restraints. I found the painting’s image there.

Whoo hoo! I expect we can have fun with this site!

Have you any painting or other piece of art that has affected you in some special way? Can you find it on Athenaeum?


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