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John Singleton Copley "Watson and the Shark"

John Singleton Copley "Watson and the Shark"

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From: Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Limited Edition: 35
Exhibition: American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915
Material: Printed vinyl
Dimensions: 96" x 35" (243cm x 88cm)

Hanging Hardware Included


Englishman Brook Watson commissioned American artist John Singleton Copley to paint a depiction of the former’s rescue from a shark attack while swimming in the harbor of Havana, Cuba in 1749. At the time of his death, Watson bequeathed Watson and Shark to Christ’s Hospital so it might prove "a most usefull [sic] Lesson to Youth" to overcome adversity. At the time of the attack, Watson was just 14 and he lost the lower portion of a leg doing something he loved, but he went on to have a successful career as a merchant and in government. The painting was featured on the banner used for LACMA’s exhibition, American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915


With American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, LACMA crafted a story of American life as told by its most celebrated painters through a complicated, transformative period spanning 150 years. Artists such as John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, William Sidney Mount, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, and George Bellows, painted stories of their times from firsthand observations. The “story” begins in colonial times with the American Revolution, and travels through western expansion and industrialization and ends finally as the U.S. gains a world presence in World War I. The canvasses selected for the exhibition were those that depicted current day situations; no paintings that were based on myth or literature were included.

John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark was one of the first in the exhibition's sequence. Copley was American-born, but lived the later part of his life in England. Watson and the Shark was painted in 1778 and tells the story of a young man who was twice attacked by a shark while swimming in Havanna’s harbor. The subject, Brook Watson, explained the story to Copley and commissioned the painting, which was one of three versions and on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Copley painted a replica of the painting for himself which is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a smaller, more upright version now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The painting was well received at the time and was quickly translated into a mezzotint, a process of engraving an image onto a copper plate for reproduction, by London’s best engraver, Valentine Green. The mezzotint, entitled A Youth Rescued from a Shark, was true to Copley’s original but Green’s skilled handling of Watson’s body through the translucency of the water made the piece a work of art in its own right. Watson and the Shark enjoyed critical acclaim, but the engraving by Green ensured a much wider distribution and popularity.

The banner used to promote LACMA's exhibition is a diptych of Copley's painting. The left banner panel shows the reaching of the boatsmen for Watson in the water while the right panel shows the man with the spear and the shark. "American Stories" appears sideways vertical on the left panel and "LACMA/February 28- May 23, 2010" is on the right panel.


This banner was displayed around the Los Angeles area to promote the LACMA exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 between February 28 and May 23, 2010.

About the Artist

Learn more about John Singleton Copley

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