Colonial 'Jaws,' like Hollywood's, a box office hit Copley's painting on exhibit in D.C.

January 27, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

/TC Long before Hollywood brought its infamous rogue of the sea to life, 18th-century Colonial American artist John Singleton Copley painted his own captivating version of a terrifying shark attack.

Copley's depiction of the rescue of a young cabin boy from shark-infested waters received high praise for its power and realism from the London press and public in 1778, and earned the artist a lasting reputation.

"Watson and the Shark" is now the centerpiece of an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington that looks at the story behind the work and how Copley created the masterpiece.

The almost 6-by-8-foot picture details the rescue of a merchant ship cabin boy named Brook Watson from a shark attack while he was swimming in Havana harbor in 1749.

"The painting is one of the most popular in the gallery's American collection," said Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery.

Watson told Copley about the incident almost 30 years after it occurred. As a 14-year-old cabin boy, Watson said, he lost his right leg below the knee to a shark, which dragged him underwater three times before a group of sailors in a rowboat pulled him free.

The display unites three versions of the famous scene for the first time: the gallery's main work, a similar version from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a smaller, vertical rendition from the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The three works have subtle differences.

In the Detroit and Boston paintings, Watson's severely injured right leg can be seen just below the water, whereas in the final version, the damage to his leg is not visible.

The Detroit work, with its greater depth from top to bottom and added emphasis on the harpooner, is considered a study for the final rendition.

Five of Copley's smaller preparatory studies also on display include a portrait of the black seaman who plays a very visible role in the final work. Some say the black sailor's presence was a statement against slavery by Copley; others say he was merely enhancing the geographic setting of the incident. Many ships operating in the West Indies then included black sailors.

In the decades following the attack, Watson became a successful merchant destined to play a role in the American Revolution -- albeit as a loyal subject of the British crown.

In 1773, he became an unwilling host to the Boston Tea Party as his cargo of tea was unceremoniously dumped into the harbor by angry colonials. On a voyage from Canada two years later, he escorted a group of English prisoners, which included American revolutionary leader Ethan Allen, back to England.

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