John Singleton Copley - Watson and the Shark

by Alexandra Tuschka


A small wooden boat with 9 passengers sweeps across the water to help another man. Because a shark has approached the boat and thus also the man in the water, whose life is now threatened. The predator has already opened its mouth to bite. The shark seems to have already grabbed one leg, and the water is already stained with blood. The men on the boat are in a frenzy. Two try to pull the drifter into the boat, a third throws out a rope, and a next attacks the animal with a boat hook. The rowers maneuver the boat into position. In the background, large ships can be seen in the harbor, flanking the scene on the right and left.

There are three versions of the painting today, which was a commission from businessman Brook Watson. It was a challenge for John Copley, otherwise known as a portrait painter. The subject represented a novelty - it was painted in the style of heroic history painting, but combined with a secular motif. The client had a childhood memory painted: As a 14-year-old, Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. In the first attack he was injured in the leg, in the second he lost a leg and had to wear a prosthesis since then and in the third - shown here - attack the shark could be driven away by his companions. Although the painter did not see Havana Harbor himself, he drew on prints and maps of this environment for the work. In this work, although the outcome is open, we can hope that the men will be able to save the naked man.


The nudity of the protagonist, his pose and the light blond long hair, which blends homogeneously in the play of water, recall the representation of ancient gods or demigods. The expressive gesture also reveals a play of muscles. Iconographically, the gesture of the standing man on the right can be associated with works of St. Michael or St. George. The shark's jaws are sometimes associated with the gateway to hell. In truth, however, Watson was an orphan and only 14 when the boatmen narrowly saved him from the shark's third attack. In 1778, exhibited at the Royal Academy, the work was an instant success and earned the painter a small fortune.


John Singleton Copley - Watson and the Shark

Oil on canvas, 1778, 182.1 x 229.7 cm, National Gallery in London