Painting And Polictics: John Singleton Copley's Watson And The Shark

1525 words - 6 pages

John Singleton Copley’s painting called Watson and the Shark dramatizes a horrific event that took place in 1749 where fourteen-year-old Brook Watson was brutally attacked by a shark in Havana Harbor. Shortly after the attack, Watson was rescued from the water by his fellow shipmates. The crew of a small boat, which had been waiting to escort their captain to shore, fought off the shark and rescued Watson. Unfortunately, Watson lost his leg (below the knee) as a result of the accident. He went on to live a full life never forgetting that day. In 1778 he commissioned John Singleton Copley to make a painting about this life changing event. I believe John Singleton Copley put pictorial limitations on his historical painting of Watson and the Shark because of political and personal implications at the time the painting was completed.
John Singleton Copley was born in 1738 in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother Martha Babcock Amory was married to Richard Copley who died shortly after John’s birth. A couple of years later his mother remarried to Peter Pelham. Peter would prove to be a big influence on John’s early career. Pelham, one of Boston’s top engravers, would teach him the intricacies of printing and give Copley a chance to access a large library of prints to work from. These would later be used in the compositions of paintings like The Return of Neptune (fig1.1) and Mrs. Jerathmael Bowers. At first he borrowed poses and backgrounds from his step father's mezzotints, and tricks of color and modeling from his elders in Boston's portrait-painting fraternity. But he soon found he could go farther by paying scant attention to the modes and strict attention to his models. He would spend up to 100 hours on a portrait without a thought, knowing the only way to advance was to put in so good-old-fashioned elbow grease. Copley learned how to paint what he saw, and make the subject turn from brush strokes on the canvas to a real human being, a desirable and admirable trait for an artist. He would begin to do what Jennifer Roberts likes to call ‘tabletop’ portraits. In the paintings subjects would sit behind a desk or table resting the arms and fingers upon it. This gave him a chance to practice reflections and lustrous surfaces. The subjects would be adorned with their finest clothes and belongings, implying their wealth. His talents brought him a steady stream of commissions throughout his time in America. This steady income would help him to fulfill his responsibilities to provide for his widowed mother and step brother. Soon he would acquire a large fortune from his portraits and end up owning Copley had become the colonies supreme artist and one of America’s finest portrait painters.
Copley’s peers who were familiar with his work, urged Copley to travel to Europe to improve his technique. Despite the fact that Copley remained in Boston, he was ready for a challenge. In 1776 Copley wanted to test his skills with the European standards....

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