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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

John Singleton Copley
American, 1738 - 1815
Watson and the Shark
Oil on canvas

71 3/4 x 90 1/2 inches


National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art

Arts of North America

African-descended people were not typically the center point of Western art (see The Bloody Massacre, Fishing Party, and The Washington Family), yet in this image John Singleton Copley centers his composition on a black sailor.

Bayou Bend’s Watson and the Shark is likely a copy of a smaller version painted by Copley in 1782, which replicates the original 1778 painting shown here, owned by the National Gallery of Art. The scene represents a real-life event: the rescue of Brook Watson from a shark attack in the harbor of Havana, Cuba.

The black sailor stands in the middle of the action, anchoring the boat to prevent it from capsizing. His occupation as a sailor is important, for it was a position with opportunities for movement and social advancement. With humanity and sensitivity, Copley created an image that did not fit into the norms of Western art. The black sailor’s place on the high seas pushed viewers to let go of stereotypes and presumptions, and instead embrace the possibility that a black man can be a hero.

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