John Singleton Copley’s interpretation of a horrifying disaster in Brooke Watson and the Shark stands out as a romanticised horror painting. Watson and the Shark, an oil on canvas painting, was completed in 1778 and belongs to the ’18th Century American political’ period. The painting is an oil on canvas and stands 182 cm tall and 230 cm wide. It can be found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington .The interpretation was inspired by an event which took place in Cuba in 1749,a fourteen year-old boy ,by the name of Brook Watson was swimming unaccompanied in the harbour where he was attacked by a huge Tiger shark. His fellow shipmates ,who had been on board at the time launched to his rescue.
As the sailors hurried to Watson’s aid the shark repeatedly attacked the struggling boy. The shark then proceeded to bite Watson’s foot off at the ankle. Copley chooses the illustrate the moment with the highest dramatic intensity; the moment before the potentially fatal attack.Its function is to communicate a message through the cultural and subjective frames, it makes the viewers feel for the boy while at the same time informing people about the dangers associated with sharks. For Watson, the attack and recovery symbolised his triumph over misfortune, and he hoped that the painting would provide “a most useful Lesson to Youth.”
The serene harbour scene in the background serves as a foil for the furious action taking place in the foreground, Other forceful features in the foreground include the size of the shark extending far beyond the boundaries of the picture frame, the movement of the boat towards the boy and the violent thrust of the boat hook. Copley uses variation in line and texture to exaggerate the sensation of the churned up water in the foreground and the still, glassy water in the background. He has also used light and colour to create the effect of an overcast day , there seems to be a beam of light shining on the main focal point ,while the remaining parts of the artwork are covered by shadow. Copley has perhaps exaggerated the size of the shark to further emphasise the effect the potential attack might have .There is a sense of movement throughout the artwork, Copley has used sea spray to show movement in the water .As well as being an interpretation of an event in history Copley has also used the picture to make a political statement.
The African-American man in the centre of the work is a representation of the millions of African-Americans that have worked their entire lives alongside white sailors The painting, Watson and the Shark, does not have words, but it tells a story of passion and desire. For centuries, African Americans were unable to document their history but this painting of the black sailor in Watson and the Shark, makes it impossible for anyone to dispute the presence of African-Americans in the workforce at that time.
Time has changed the meaning of this artwork in many different ways, when it was created back in 1778 people were unaware of the dangerous nature of sharks ,back in those days there where no shark nets in beaches or bays to provide a safe swimmming area ,nowadays we are familiar with the dangers of swimming in open water. We are also more knowledgable about the hardships and the slavery that many African-American people suffered during that period. Copley was born in Boston, he was a self-taught artist who established himself at a portraitist in the 1750’s. The Fairmont Copley Plaza has been a landmark in Boston’s historic Back Bay since 1912 and was named after John Singleton Copley.