Watson and The Shark
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Janson and Kerman note that Watson and the Shark was John Singleton Copley's first venture into the domain of history painting and that this work is "important as a model of romantic imagery".
The painting was commissioned by an Englishman named Watson who had been attacked by a shark in Havana harbor and had been lucky enough to be rescued. The painting is something of an exercise in baroque exaggeration, a going beyond realistic depiction in order to evoke strong emotions in the viewer. The terrible, deadly shape and primeval, gaping mouth of the shark, in close proximity to the swimmer-who is naked, and helpless on his back-suggest that what we are seeing is more than just a depiction of an actual event. The symbolism in the painting is obvious:
- The shark becomes a symbol of predatory evil;
- The swimmer-totally vulnerable-becomes a symbol of that which evil victimizes.
In looking at this picture we should remember that the actual event could not have looked like this. Instead of a still body glimpsed through transparent green waters, it was probably an event that involved enough frantic thrashing around to make impossible any clear picture of what was going on. Copley's technique is not realistic; it is a kind of set piece in which different elements are frozen and isolated.
The predominant color is sea green with some brighter colors coming out of the background; the somber coloration contributes to the solemnity of the scene. The expressions of the rowers are more sad than horror struck. Motion and excitement is provided by the shark and Watson, but also by the man attempting to harpoon the shark, and by the two men reaching into the water towards Watson. Line is less important than shape in this picture; the human shapes, with exception of Watson's are solid; his shape is drawn with more delicacy, something that serves to emphasize his vulnerability.
The composition is centered in the abdomen of a motionless man in the boat. All around him action swirls. To his right people are trying to pull Watson in. To his left a man is trying to kill the shark. Watson and the shark are beneath him. The violent action of the painting is thus symmetrical around this one quiet figure; this creates a sense of contrast that high lights the vigorousness of the motion of the figures.
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