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Watson and the Shark, 1782

  • John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815

Oil on canvas

  • 45 3/16 × 39 × 2 1/2 inches (114.8 × 99.1 × 6.4 cm) Unframed: 36 × 30 1/2 inches (91.4 × 77.5 cm)

Founders Society Purchase, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund


On View

  • American W270


American Art before 1950

Brook Watson had been sent to sea at fourteen; he decided to go for a swim while his ship was docked in the shark-infested waters of Havana Harbor. The painting depicts the moment when the shark is coming by for his third and possibly final attempt to make a meal out of Watson. The men in the boat were successful in harpooning the shark and heroically rescued the swimmer. Upon returning to the ship, Watson’s left leg was amputated and he was fitted with a peg leg. Later in life he became Lord Mayor of London and was often satirized, with his peg leg playing an important feature. This is one of three versions that Copley painted to commemorate the heroic rescue of Brook Watson. Rescue Group, a preparatory sketch made by Copley for Watson and the Shark, is also in the DIA collection (acc. no. 48.203).

Signed and dated, lower left: Painted by J. S. Copley R. A. London 1782

Inscribed, lower left: Painted by J. S. Copley R. A. London 1782

before 1786, Noel Desanfans

April 8, 1786, sale, lot 396, Christie's (London, England). by 1791, W. Goddard

February 5, 179, sale, lot 73, Christie's (London, England) [sold to Green]. G. P. Anderson (London, England). ca. 1850, W. P. Hunter (London, England). 1946, dealer, M. Knoedler Co. (London, England)

1946-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)

Richardson, Edgar P. "'Watson and the Shark' by John Singleton Copley." The Art Quarterly 10 (Summer 1947): pp. 213-218. Newberry, John S. "Four Drawings by Copley." Bulletin of the DIA 28, 2 (1949): pp. 32, 35 (fig. 1). The Coast and the Sea: A Survey of American Marine Painting. Exh. cat., The Brooklyn Museum. Brooklyn, 1949, no. 33. Likeness of America 1680-1820. Exh. cat., Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Colorado Springs, 1949, no. 19. Richardson, E.P. Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years. Detroit, 1957, p. 94 (fig. 40). McCoubrey, John W. American Traditions in Painting. New York, 1963, p. 20 (pl. 14). Mastai, M.L.D. "Watson and the Shark Acquired by the National Gallery, Washington." Connoisseur 159 (May 1965): p. 67. Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck, and Stuart P. Feld. American Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1. New York, 1965, p. 50. Prown, Jules David. John Singleton Copley, 2 vols. Cambridge, MA, 1966. Romantic Art in Britain: Paintings and Drawings 1760-1860. Exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, 1968, no. 44. American Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2 vols. Boston, 1969, p. 81. Cummings, Frederick and Charles Elam. DIA Handbook. Detroit, 1971, p. 153. Williams, Hermann Warner, Jr. Mirror to the American Past: Survey of American Genre Painting 1750-1900. Greenwich, CT, 1973, p. 27 (fig. 8). Lister, Raymond. British Romantic Art. London, 1973 (pl. 1). Reality and Deception. Exh. cat., University of Southern California. Los Angeles, 1974, no. 4. Stein, Roger B. "Copley's Watson and the Shark and Aesthetics in the 1770's." Discoveries and Considerations: Essays on Early American Literature and Aesthetics, Presented to Harold Jantz. Albany, New York, 1976, pp. 85-130 (ill.). Bush, Clive. The Dream of Reason: American Consciousness and Cultural Achievement from Independence to the Civil War. London, 1977, pp. 299-301 (ill.). Jaffe, Irma. "John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark." American Art Journal 9, 1 (May 1977): pp. 15-25. Kaleidoscope of American Painting: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Exh. cat., Nelso Gallery and Atkins Museum. Kansas City, 1977, no. 28. Rivard, Nancy J. "American Paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts." The Magazine Antiques 114 (November 1978): pp. 1044-1045 (pl. 1). Abrahms, Ann Uhry. "Politics, Prints, and John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark.” Art Bulletin 61 (June 1979): pp. 265-276. Boime, Albert. "Blacks in Shark-Infested Waters: Visual Encodings of Racism in Copley and Homer." Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3 (Winter 1989): pp. 19-47. Saunders, Richard. "Watson and the Shark." American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts, Vol. 1: Works by Artists Born Before 1816. New York, 1991, cat. 26, pp. 68-70 (coll. ill.). Miles, Ellen G. John Singleton Copley’s Waston and the Shark. Washington, D.C., 1992. ___________. "Copley's Watson and the Shark." The Magazine Antiques 143, 1 (January 1993): pp. 162-171. Flexner, James Thomas. John Singleton Copley, 2nd ed. New York, 1993. Masur, Louis P. "Reading Watson and the Shark." The New England Quarterly 67 (Sept., 1994): pp. 427-454. Caldwell, John. "Watson and the Shark." American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. 1: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born Before 1815. New York, 1994, pp. 99-104. Miles, Ellen G. "Watson and the Shark." American Paintings of the Eighteenth-Century. Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 54-71. Neff, Emily Ballew and William L. Pressly. John Singleton Copley in America. Houston, TX, 1995. Barratt, Carrie Rebora, et. al,. John Singleton Copley in America. New York, 1995. Cumming, Robert. Art: A Field Guide. New York, 2001, p. 59 (ill.). Roberts, Jennifer L. "Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party." Art History 10, 4 (Sept. 2011): pp. 625, 675-695. [reprinted in David Peters Corbett and Sarah Monks, eds. Anglo-American Artistic Exchange Between Britain and the USA. 2012, pp. 53-73. Clancy, Jonathan. "Human Agency and the Myth of Divine Salvation in Copley's Watson and the Shark." American Art 26 (Spring 2012): pp. 102-111. Bjelajac, David. "Mercurial Pigments and the Alchemy of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark." Artefacts: Studies in the History of Science and Technology, Vol. 9: Analyzing Art and Aesthetics. Washington, D.C., 2013, pp. 144-166. Schaefer, Barbara and Anita Hachmann, ed. Es War Einmal in Amerkika: 300 Jahre US-Amerikanische Kunst. Exh. cat., Wallraf das Museum. Cologne, 2018, pp. 300-301 (ill.).

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1782, oil on canvas. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund, 46.310.