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Rethinking Watson and the Shark


By Craig McDaniel


The Montréal Review, August 2023





The face is tucked inside the sea scene - Watson and the Shark. Specifically, the scene is a harbor; we’re in a harbor. We’re looking at the scene, at the scenery, we’re looking from a perspective a few feet above yellow-green waves, as if we ride in another vessel ten or fifteen feet from the rowboat that floats across the center of the composition. At six feet high, seven and a half feet wide, the canvas’s scale is breathtaking; the figures in the foreground look life-size. Inside the image, a lot is happening, a lot has happened. This is nonfiction painting, the visual equivalent to a historical docudrama. The scene shown is 1749; Brook Watson, then 14 years old, is swimming in the harbor off Havana, Cuba. It’s July, hot and humid (just as it is here, in Indianapolis, where I start writing this essay on July 4th 2023). A shark attacks young Watson, stripping the flesh from one leg and chomping off his right foot; the victim’s pale, nude body flails, vulnerable, as the shark circles back to attack again. And again. Three times! The painting freezes action as in a tableau vivant. In the moment the artist depicts, Watson’s fate remains up in the air. A boat has raced out from a ship to attempt to save him. Watson reaches for help, his mouth ajar - the round dark O of his mouth represents a strong emotion - but which? He might be pleading, or gasping for air, or both; maybe his mouth opens in awe (the way Caravaggio paints Saul undergoing conversion on the path to Damascus). The people in the boat have sprung to action. Their faces also register a gamut of feelings, from shock, to concern, to hope, to determination. A pair of men in white shirts reach down in tandem, straining to hoist Watson to safety. Meanwhile - and there’s always a meanwhile in a drama, isn’t there? . . . the shark, open mouth baring a full set of teeth, takes dead aim, its massive snout lunging for another bite.


Why think about this painting now? First, because 2026 draws near - the sesquicentennial of the founding of the United States seems to me a propitious time for reconsidering visual imagery created at the time of America’s Big Bang.

Second, because the richness of the imagery warrants, demands!, further unpacking. Watson and the Shark is a painting ahead of its time. I’m not the first to recognize that the approach Copley took in marrying the scale and style of a history painting with a topical story involving the ordeal of an ordinary young man sets a precedent that the Romantic art movement, a generation later, would explore widely.

Third, the painting that Copley paints points to issues that were central to the American Revolution and remain cogent today. Faith, freedom, and fame are embedded in the story - including who Copley the artist was, and who Copley has assembled in his cast of characters. Watson, then an unknown young man, eventually becomes a successful businessman and politician. A Black man stands at the apex of the composition; the background is a harbor crowded with English sailing ships (what lies in those holds? Tea? Slaves? Who mans the deck? Poor men kidnapped and made to serve in the Royal Navy?) - Watson and the Shark is all about telling a good story, with a fabulous setting, it is also all about painting (the waves, the flesh, all the forms in the scene, plus figurative imagery that connects the scene to the politics and social relations of the late 18th century. In 1778, when Copley painted his painting, the ink on the American Declaration of Independence (1776) was, in a real sense, still wet. Our Revolution in high gear, the outcome is in doubt, just as the outcome of Copley’s painting remains in doubt.

Fourth, in America, from the outset, we see a problematic relationship in the separation of Church and State. One aspect of this is the continuing effort, by some, to declare God controls fate. History is ordained. At both macro and micro scales. With Watson’s rescue coming at the last possible moment, Copley’s painting verges on the miraculous . . . References to religious imagery abound: see, for instance, the oar and the harpoon locked into a cross-shape pattern that extends across the composition. Of course, within Christianity further puzzlements stir, including the relationship of mankind and the creatures that God created on the fifth day of Genesis - sea creatures and birds of the air. Why must the shark be a powerful symbol of evil?


Some questions:

Is Watson and the Shark an American painting?

Is Watson and the Shark an English painting?

Is Watson and the Shark a history painting?

Is Watson and the Shark a political painting?

Is Watson and the Shark a religious painting?

All of the above? None of the above?

Copley departs from Boston, sails for England - immediately before the start of the American Revolution! Surely one factor was wanting to avoid his dangerous position on the fence. He abhorred violence, wanted peace. His fence-sitting was strategic, and necessary: he forged his career and life, up until 1775, as a professional painter who profited from securing portrait commissions from patrons on the Loyalist side (he even married a Loyalist), while simultaneously enjoying friendships among those, like Paul Revere, who clamored for self-governance. Copley wanted to avoid war; single-handedly, he tried to broker a deal between the two sides of Tories and the Whigs, to put a halt to the momentum gathering for the revolution. His effort failed; the Boston Tea Party took place. The result becomes American history.

Once settled in England, Copley sought recognition by producing narrative historical paintings, they being the genre of highest esteem at the time. He succeeded. Quickly. Benjamin West - that other transplanted American-born artist of true talent - helped pave the way, opening doors for Copley, connecting him to key English artists and patrons. But, as he always did, Copley rode primarily on the strength of his own native genius and unfailing work ethic. Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778, was a key achievement (along with a fabulous smaller painting of a boy with a pet flying squirrel) that helped secure his election, in 1779, to Britain’s Royal Academy.


There isn’t one painting by Copley of Watson and the Shark. He painted three that now serve wide public audiences. There’s the ‘original’ Watson and the Shark, painted in 1778; this version is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. where it is currently displayed in the West Building, Ground Floor, Gallery 37. There’s a second painting, that Copley painted for himself in 1780, two years after the original painting’s completion; this artwork contains the same scene, painted at the same dimensions, although it does contain some modifications, such as figures in the boat are slightly reduced in size relative to the size of Watson, producing an increase in the illusion of depth. This version is now a treasure in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Should we identify this second painting as a representation of a representation? Copley did not mean it to serve as a mere replica, but thought of it - in the thought process of his era - as another, equally valid version. Copley also painted a 3rd smaller version in 1782, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection. This Watson and the Shark comes in a taller format; Copley extended the sky high above the harbor, so the maritime drama occupies only the lower half of the full painting. Finally, the smart painter of the period needed an entrepreneurial instinct; Copley produced engravings of his famous image - their sale netted him a small fortune.


Watson decides to go swimming off the side of a ship, a ship upon which he serves as a cabin boy. The ship flies an English flag. What connects the ship to American history is another strange twist - this is the very ship that, decades later, carries the tea that colonists in Boston dump into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party! Is Watson heroic? After being saved from the shark, did he live a life of grace, selflessness, and the highest moral standards? Ultimately, Watson appears - from our eyes - to have landed on the wrong side of history. Watson’s life story, after his rescue, becomes “a concern of later writers, namely, Watson's Tory allegiance and, especially, his opposition to the abolition of slavery.” But, to be honest - questionable allegiances, self-aggrandizement, mistaking drama for heroism, someone transplanted with feet in two countries, an opportunist with suspect scruples . . . such factors point to someone who, sadly, represents America, a swatch of the real America, as fully as any hero could. For his part in composing the canvas, Copley, of course, does what a knowledgeable painter of his era does - he tries to forge the connection to received notions of heroism, by referencing earlier art, and biblical and mythological narratives. “(T)he harpooner's pose . . . recalls Raphael's altarpiece of the Archangel Michael using a spear to drive Satan out of heaven.”

When Copley paints Watson and the Shark, in England in 1778, the American Revolution is still in its early stages. (This is the year France enters the fray, coming on board to side with the Americans.) Watson, the “star” of the painting, purchases the artwork from Copley; most historians think he commissioned the canvas. Watson later bequeaths the painting to a British hospital that served orphans, hoping the scene would be inspirational for young children (a.k.a., if you think you have it tough . . .) By subsequent twists and turns of provenance (the art historical term for the history and chronology of ownership), this first version of Watson and the Shark eventually makes its way across the Atlantic, where it enters the collection of The National Gallery of Art.

6. A Lesson in Looking: Pictorial Concoctions

Translating the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional representation presents challenges, as well as opportunities. Art offers the artist, and the viewer, opportunities to move beyond the world, to create new worlds, and new visual forms, that exist only through the language of art. Painting becomes a way of thinking.

A pictorial concoction is (my term for) a type of synthetic creation that can be found in a painting and other two-dimensional images. The pictorial concoction is the product of two forms that coexist at different depths in a picture. In the real world, in our ordinary acts of looking at the world around us, two forms at different depths would rarely be bonded together into a single gestalt, because the physiology of seeing requires a change of focus; so only one form would be seen, in focus, at a time. However, in a painting, due to their factual, physical juxtaposition on the picture plane, two forms can appear connected. And, by virtue of being visually connected, the forms embody a new unit of meaning. Perception links with conception. This marriage of forms carries a psychological charge. A jolt of recognition. A face is nestled in the crotch of legs. The viewer knows, after puzzling out the scene spatially, that the face must exist deeper in space than the legs, so that the pairing of face and legs is only an illusion. The forms appear linked, are truly linked, however, because we see them from the one, and only, perspective in which the face and legs align perfectly. That alignment is exactly what the painter has created for us. Ergo: the pictorial concoction is brought into being.

Is Copley’s insert of the face between legs a visual riddle, worth a chuckle, but nothing more? We want to argue that this detail serves Copley’s art in ways that extend his art. Connecting his painting with the long tradition of the art form, backwards and forwards in time. As he does throughout his composition, Copley shows himself rethinking representation. The painting contains more than its explicit subject matter; the painting contains painting. As John Elderfield explains, in writing about the art of Richard Diebenkorn, any painting worth its salt explores representation not as a means to an end, offering a visual record of a subject or motif, but as an exploration of the means of painting itself.

Once you have the concept in mind, and know what to look for, you’ll find pictorial concoctions abound. They range from the witty to the profound. They appear in some of the most recognized and acclaimed paintings on the planet. Caravaggio’s Deposition (1602-1603), Rembrandt’s Night Watch, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), to cite a few. Often, pictorial concoctions can be discovered hiding in plain sight; Copley certainly saw them as he made a grand tour of European cities after leaving America. And, he would have seen them in the work of artists he respected upon his arrival in England. The same year Copley creates Watson and the Shark, Benjamin West completes his own history painting on the water - The Battle of La Hogue (1778), showing the defeat of the French invasion (under the command of James II, the deposed Catholic monarch of England). Across the teeming composition, the artist creates a wealth of delightful and imaginative visual inventions by the careful juxtaposition on the picture plane of arms, hands, faces, weapons, and so forth. These pictorial concoctions produce new images of visual reality - there’s what can only be identified as a ‘double face with four eyes’ on the far right! New perspectives, and the combining of multiple perspectives, yield fresh forms, fresh insights. A hand shoots from a head. A face surrounded by legs. These examples demonstrate painting as an art form with vast, untapped resources.

Was Copley conscious of creating his own pictorial concoction? Could it have happened by accident? The short answer: No. Paintings aren’t snapshots. Taking a snapshot, snapping a picture on a iPhone, someone may aim at a subject and not realize that the framing also creates a strange overlapping, or lopping off part of a form. So a concoction can be produced inadvertently. However, in the case of Watson and the Shark, Copley consciously inserted the face between the legs. In a preliminary drawing, squared for transfer, in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Copley sketches the Rescue Group (Eight Men). In that image, the man (whose face we focus so much attention on) - the man who becomes the ninth rescuer - is not present. The opening between the harpoonist’s legs contains only a dark shadow, a figure who is not yet delineated. Subsequent to the execution of the preliminary drawing, Copley made the decision to insert the face with a level of detail that gives it a presence equal to other figures in the boat.


A white man in the preliminary drawing becomes, in the finished painting, a Black man; he stands at the apex of the compositional scheme, and wears an expression, as one critic of the day wrote, that can be read as a combination of “concern and horror.” What does this figure represent? Painting Watson and the Shark in 1778, surely Copley was making a reference, he was aware of the Atlantic slave trade, aware of the issues being voiced, such as the abolitionist’s quest for freedom for the enslaved. Copley’s decision to include a black man as part of the team of the rescue operation for Watson appears unmistakably noteworthy, just as the figure of a black man at the apex of French painter Gericault's massive The Raft of the Medusa (1818 - 1819) (another narrative painting based on a real life event) is not to be overlooked.


Do modern and contemporary artists incorporate pictorial concoctions?

Here, the quick answer is yes. Consider an image by photographer Harry Callahan (1912 - 1999). In Eleanor Chicago 1952, Callahan photographs his wife Eleanor (she appears frequently in his work in the post-war period).

The woman stands in quietude, upright so that an automobile (in the characteristic rounded style of the 1950s) in the distance fuses with her face. The image is very carefully calibrated; even the circular form of the woman’s chin echoes the car’s round tires. A vertical pole (perhaps the base of a street lamp or traffic signal) stands erect between the woman and the car. The three-part arrangement is uncanny. Because of the similarity of the tones on the face and car, the intervening pole seems to become transparent. If we were really there, on the street, could we see this arrangement of woman, pole, and car in the same strange way as Callahan’s photograph captures them? We could not. Because of the physiology of our two eyes, our restrictive capability for focusing on near and far at once . . . The pictorial concoction operates only with such eerie grace inside the work of Callahan’s art, where near and far and in-between collapse together into a startling new unity on the surface of the photograph.

9. A Lesson in Looking: the Dynamics of Viewpoint

All paintings are not equal. Of course we know this. But one way in which they are not equal is often overlooked: our own position as viewers, changes. Winslow Homer’s widely admired painting The Gulf Stream (1899, reworked 1906), shows a small sailboat, its mast broken, adrift in swelling seas. Sharks surround the boat, a lone figure of a Black man lies on the deck. He scans the horizon, where a sailing ship appears too far to offer any help; a typhoon in the upper right of the painting looks headed his way. As we look at the painting - where are we? We are nowhere. Although our viewpoint seems to be perhaps twenty feet away from the boat and the sharks - not unlike our viewpoint as we face Copley’s Watson and the Shark - we are not, however, there. We are positioned there hypothetically, like an omniscient observer in a verbal narrative. We can see the scene unfolding, but those in the scene (in this case, the Black man on the boat, the sharks in the water) cannot see us. In the case of other paintings, the figures in the painting do see us. Copley’s painting is created in such a way as to remain ambiguous. Perhaps we are invisible onlookers, or perhaps we are in a second boat of would-be-rescuers. The vivid immediacy of Copley’s painting is due, in part, to the feeling that we may be there, in the harbor, next to the shark.

10. A Lesson in Looking: accordion depth

Viewing an illustration of Watson and the Shark in a book, or on a computer screen, we looking at the painting from the equivalence of a distance of five or six times the width. In a museum we could only see the painting from this perspective if we walked back across the gallery and looked from 50 or 60 feet away. Then, the painting appears radically elongated, accordion depth is stretched out . . . When we see the actual painting in the museum, at the distance that the artist anticipated would be typical - from a distance of perhaps six to ten feet - the scene is right there in front of us, within shouting distance of the shore. This feature of the dynamics of distance is what I call the accordion nature of space in a representational painting.

In looking at the real world and looking at a painting, our viewing distances are variable. However, this changing variable impacts our view of the real world and the scene in a painting in very different degrees. What happens when the viewer changes her viewpoint? If she moves forward in the real world, moves forward five feet, this results in a different relationship to the forms she sees than if she comes five feet closer to a painted artwork. Let’s imagine a girl in a rowboat, she is viewing the rescue of Watson from ten feet away. If she closes this gap by five feet, she now sees the rescue from a distance of only five feet. She’s much closer; Watson and the shark and the men in the other rowboat loom quite a bit larger. In fact, they seem to have doubled in size. Moving forward five feet, however, changed her view of the ships in the harbor, and the buildings along the coast, hardly at all. They barely change in scale. Because moving five feet closer to a ship that is hundreds of feet away doesn’t result in a noticeable change in scale.

In contrast, if a girl stands in a museum and views the painting Watson and the Shark from ten feet away, and then she moves forward and views the painting from five feet away, all the forms in the painting, including the shark, Watson, the rowboat, sailing ships at anchor, and buildings on the shore, all of them double in size.

Stepping 5 feet closer to the painting: all forms change equally. The figure in the waves doubles in size, so does the farthest building in the background. Near gets closer, but at a much slower rate than the background, which thrusts towards us at high velocity! Moving back and forth from Watson and the Shark produces a powerful dynamic; the space inside the painting collapses and extends the way an accordion’s folds open and close. Our viewpoint, as we look at the painting, is not neutral, extraneous to the subject. Viewer and imagery fuse, form a whole in flux.

11. A Lesson in Looking: the Three-Dimensional Painting

What happens if we take the process of representational painting (turning three-dimensional subject matter into two-dimensional representation) and now turn the two-dimensional representation into a new three-dimensionality? We can accomplish this feat in a number of ways, by treating, and responding to, the painting as a physical object. We can look at it from more than one angle. When we view paintings on a computer screen, we almost exclusively view the image head-on, at an angle exactly perpendicular to the picture plane. Alternative oblique views, however, may alter the relationships of forms and figures within the imagery in ways both subtle and startling. We can also turn the painting itself (rather than turn our heads). The painting becomes a boat we can steer, we can turn. Turning Copley’s Watson and the Shark vertically we see this:

Is this a valid viewpoint? Or does this alter the painting beyond recognition, beyond reason? Suddenly, it seems, the image embraces its ambiguity, it glistens with biblical overtones. The primary diagonals of the bright oar and boat hook appear illuminated, they form a huge cross that runs across the composition, a cross Copley’s composition has always contained. More interpretive possibilities open: A crucifixion, a descent from the cross, an ascent. Are these interpretations supported? Are these interpretations out of this world? Who is the author (artist) of this painting now?

12. A Lesson in Looking: the Dynamics of the Dream

In painting a face peering out from between someone’s legs, Copley hints at the strange type of logic dreams reveal, in which objects’ identities are in flux, and forms morph and combine. While Copley could not have predicted such a development, the production of a pictorial concoction plays a role in the development of a surrealist aesthetic:

Breton writes, “One evening... before I fell asleep, I perceived.. .a rather strange phrase which came to me without any apparent relationship to the events in which, my consciousness agrees, I was then involved, a phrase which seemed to me insistent ... this phrase astonished me: unfortunately I cannot remember it exactly, but it was something like: ‘There is a man cut in two by the window,’ but there could be no question of ambiguity, accompanied as it was by the faint visual image of a man walking cut half way up by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. ... what I saw was the simple reconstruction in space of a man leaning out a window. But this window shifted with the man, I realized that I was dealing with an image of a fairly rare sort, and all I could think of was to incorporate it into my material for poetic construction.” [see pp 450-451 Andre Breton from the First Manifesto of Surrealism, Art in Theory 1900-2000.]

Breton immediately pivoted from his hypnogogic state into action - he explained the insight to his collaborator and together they set to filling sheets of paper with their own invented pairings, the concocted juxtaposition of disparate things and qualities into freshly conceived poetic relationships. In their minds, they were inventing surrealism. John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark stands as a link in the long chain of creative traditions, extending back and forth, that show humans experimenting and discovering possibilities of images.


Invention and discovery. These are the twin engines of human creativity. In developing language, any language, we toggle back and forth, inventing and discovering. We invent processes and find insights that did not (seem to) exist before us. Once we invent, we discover new paths opening before us, pathways that are inherent. In an alphabet (that we invented) of 26 letters, it is inherent that alliteration will be discovered. An emphasis on the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words in a sequence - this is not an invention, per se, but a discovery.

Pictorial concoctions as a class of visual relationships is a discovery.

The concept - linking perception with recognition - was there, awaiting us. In this channel, art history was, to some degree, inevitable.

Watson and the Shark remains forever open for new possibilities for seeing, and seeing produces thinking, linking in a broad net of insights: History, Art History, Nature, Language, Faith, Beauty, Mystery, and Joy.


Craig McDaniel (Professor Emeritus, Indiana University, Herron School of Art + Design | IUPUI) is co-author of Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980 (Oxford University Press). His essays, art, and experimental writing have appeared in the New England Review, the Gettysburg Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. New poems are forthcoming from the Red Noise Collective.


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