14 Nov
Thu / 2013

Inside the MFAH
Diving into “Watson and the Shark”

One of the centerpieces of American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World is Watson and the Shark, the sensational painting that earned artist John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) election to the Royal Academy of Art in London.

Just a few insights into this monumental work:

Watson led quite a life, including a stint as the “peg-legged mayor of London.”
This painting depicts a dramatization of the 1749 shark attack on teenager Brook Watson, a seaman’s apprentice, in Havana harbor. Watson lost his right leg below the knee but miraculously survived.

Watson, fitted with a wooden prosthesis, went on to become a well-known merchant who was elected lord mayor of London in 1796. He reveled in the exciting public persona boosted by this painting: Watson even styled his own coat of arms featuring his lost leg and the Roman god Neptune driving off a shark.

No one really knew what a shark looked like at the time.
Viewers today will notice how the shark isn’t quite anatomically accurate, but the late 18th century didn’t exactly have Shark Week. Very little was known about these animals. Copley’s shark was actually fairly groundbreaking—far closer to real sharks than “sea monsters” depicted in mythical and biblical artworks up to that time. Probably the easiest shark specimen to obtain was the jawbone, so Copley likely studied from one—meaning that the rest of the shark’s anatomy is essentially guesswork from other sources. He didn’t do badly, considering!

This painting is a revolutionary mash-up of old and new.
In addition to the shark’s blending of the tradition of biblical sea monsters with Enlightenment-era scientific study, Watson and the Shark combines the New World (the Cuban setting and the diverse group of sailors) with the Old World (Watson was English-born, and this image appeals to Britain’s imperial maritime power). This transatlantic fluidity is echoed in Copley himself, who was Boston-raised and had moved to London only three years before painting Watson and the Shark in 1778.

Learn more about this painting in the essay “Like Gudgeons to a Worm: John Singleton Copley’s ‘Watson and the Shark’ and the Cultures of Natural History” by curator Emily Ballew Neff in the exhibition catalogue.


Recent Posts

Post Archives

Tag Cloud

17th-century 18th-century 1970s 19th-century 20th-century 35mm 5womenartists abstract activity african-art a-history-of-photography akan america american american-art ancient and angelica-kauffmann animals animation anna-atkins antiquities architecture archive armchair-travel art art-books artist artists art-of-the-islamic-worlds arts-of-india azaleas bayou bayou-bend bayou-bend-christmas-village bend bestowing-beauty biblical biography black book british british-arrows british-art broadways-amazing-mastersons buffalo-bayou-park-cistern campus campus-redevelopment cannes carroll-sterling-masterson chair chef chinese-art christmas christmas-fun cinema cisternrain classic classic-films cocktail coffee collection color colors-of-the-oasis community concrete conservation contemporary-art contemporary-arts-museum-houston contemporary-film contesting-modernity countess cullen-sculpture-garden culture curator curators-picks dance decorative-arts degas degas-a-new-vision design digital documentary documents dont-blink-robert-frank drama drawings dutch-art electronic elizabeth-i england e-records europe exhibition exhibitions eye-on-houston family family-programs fashion fashion-fusion feast festival fiber-arts field film films flowers food france francis-bacon free french french-art fun future futuremfah gainsborough gallery gallery-interpretation garden garden-paradise gardens george-iii glassell glassell-school-of-art google-art-project google-arts-and-culture habsburg-splendor-masterpieces-from-viennas-imperial-collections halloween happyhour happy-new-year harris-masterson-iii henry-viii hirsch-library history history-book-club holiday holiday-fun hollywood home homemfah homeso-different-so-appealing houston howe hurricane-harvey icaa ikat ima-hogg impressionism indian-art instagram interactive ipads islamic italian japanese-art john-biggers joshua-reynolds kenwood kids king kodak kusama latin latin-america latin-american latin-american-art latino-art latin-wave latinx laura-israel learning-and-interpretation love mail manet maria-fernanda-cardoso mastersons mayan-art media meditation mending-craft-and-community mexican-film mexican-modernism mexico mfa-cafe mfah mfah-book-club mfah-films mfah-in-the-community mfah-staff modern modernism movie movies movies-houstonians-love mueck mueckmfah museum museum-education music native-american-art new nhprc now-on-view now-playing organic oscar-de-la-renta oscars painting paintings paint-the-revolution paris paul-thomas-anderson peacock-in-the-desert-the-royal-arts-of-jodhpur-india peacockmfah persian persian-art photographs photography picasso portrait portraits pose prints prints-and-drawings programs queen-victoria radical rebel-jester-mystic-poet recipe rembrandt-van-rijn rienzi ron-mueck rothko sampler school sculpted-in-steel sculpture self-portrait shadow-monsters shepherds short-films slow-art-day snail snapshot spain spanish-art spring streaming style summer technology texas textiles thanksgiving the the-al-sabah-collection theater the-glamour-and-romance-of-oscar-de-la-renta trivia tudors-to-windsors valentines-day venezuelan-art video vincent-van-gogh vincent-van-gogh-his-life-in-art virtual wagner-garden-carpet watercolor winter women-filmmakers womens-history-month works-on-paper yoga zoom