ART CULTURE: The Interpretation of Watson and The Shark
One of the first Paintings to Feature a Black Man Front and Center-
By Lindsey Christina
History painting is a genre in painting which a narrative is told surrounding a specific event in history. In contrast to genre painting, which depicts moments in everyday life, history painting is the utmost valued form of painting during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, other varieties of painting which were less valued at the time, and did not include depictions of fabled, religious, theological, or metaphors, like history painting did. During this time, there was a great call for historical paintings, including contemporary accounts.
Watson and the Shark (1778), by John Singleton Copley, exhibits the moment when Brook Watson, a London merchant, was attacked by a shark and the attempt to rescue him. This incident occurred in 1749, yet the painting was created in 1778 directly after the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Copley, who was living in Boston at the time of the Tea Party, was witness to all the political turmoil at the time. Painting Watson’s life-changing event in the backdrop of the Boston Tea Party event is suggested to be a political statement. In the water, a symbol of rebirth, Copley could be referencing his hope for the rebirth of the British Empire post the Americans public display of defiance to taxation of tea. Copley is challenging the traditional idea of history painting by referencing an event that happened so many years after the incident that took Watson’s leg.
Commissioned by Watson, Copley paints a view of the sea in which the emphasis was not on the landscape, but the people. The gentlemen in the boat are trying to rescue Watson and each have a unique expression of concern or panic. Copley paints a triangular composition in which the viewer follows the horizontal figure of Watson lying helpless in the water, up to a black slave, who also appears to be disadvantaged, and then back down a man’s harpoon to the water at the shark. Traditionally, black men had been painted at the base of paintings at this time and not at the top of a pyramidal configuration as in this piece. Painting a black figure at the bottom of a work reiterated the social hierarchy of the time. In this piece, Copley has included the black man at the top to suggest equality among all men, yet he is not actively pursuing the rescue of Watson. Although the composition is indicative of customary history painting, his use of hierarchy of forms defies traditional attitudes towards race and equality. When studying the black figure in particular, you can see that the rope is not pulled taut, he is letting the rope dangle. This showcases the idea that black slaves at the time were unable to participate in the same activities as the white man. The black gentleman in the boat has been viewed as a symbolic nod to the powerless as he attempts to hand the rope to the other men in the boat to save Watson. The men are not reaching for the rope which perhaps emphasizes the uselessness and powerlessness of Watson and the black man.
Boime, Albert. “Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters: Visual Encodings of Racism in Copley and Homer.” Chicago Journals, Vol. 3. No. 1 (1989), 19-47.
Roberts, Jennifer L. “Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party.” Association of Art Historians. (September 2011), 674-695.