“Watson And The Shark” Painting By J. S. Copley


One of the most well-known paintings of John Singleton Copley was Watson and the Shark. It was created in 1778 and is believed to be inspired by a real-life situation that the artists took from the life of a fourteen-year-old boy named Brook Watson (Copley). This work generated an enormous resonance in the 1778 exhibition in London because art connoisseurs had never encountered such a vigorous and vibrant representation of action and emotions (Copley). Although Copley left America before the war for independence started, it appeared that, at his core, he remained a person who valued individualism and cooperation pertinent to American culture (Milles 21). In fact, the very distinct use of bright colors and the light contrast allowed him to present people’s faces uniquely and display a metaphoric meaning related to British-American conflict in this artwork.

John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark Painting

The painting’s scene occurs in the middle of the sea, where several men on a boat are trying to save a boy from a shark. In the foreground, the naked young man who falls to the sea desperately stretches his hand for help. Notably, the boy is represented to have a well-developed musculature, long fair hair, and a severe wound on his right leg, possibly from being attacked by the predator (Copley). The man’s face seems to express horror for his own fate. The shark, shown adjacent to him, is opening its mouth to devour the young man (Copley). The giant fish also has blood on its lower jaw, indicating the connection between the boy’s wound and the attack. People on the boat, who are also scared and concerned, strive to save the boy by trying to capture his arm or providing him with a rope that the young man can hold. The only person, in the front, not actively involved in a savior is the harpooner, eager to kill the shark. Lastly, the two individuals in the background do not participate in this process because they row the boat.

I think the central message of this painting was not only to reconstruct the situation that happened to Brook Watson but also to show the bravery of humankind in the face of grave danger. Although Copley left America because of political disagreement with the actions of people wanting to overthrow the colonial government, being born in Boston, he still likely admired their courage (Milles 21). The appreciation of bravery was reflected in this particular piece of art. Moreover, the painting may be an allegory for the conflict between the United States and British Empire, the former being sailors and the latter being shown as a shark. I think this interpretation may be valid because, at that time, British Empire’s Royal Navy dominated the sea, while the American army primarily consisted of untrained amateurs. Therefore, the painting appeared to show the inequality of the forces between the two opponents. Notably, history shows that the boy, who was attacked by the shark, was able to survive and become a successful British politician (Copley). It seemed that the painter predicted the great future of the American nation due to its unbending will.


In summary, Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark was a unique artwork that used vibrant color techniques to represent people’s actions and emotions. However, this painting was not just a reconstruction of actual events that happened to Brook Watson, but it can also be considered a metaphor for the war between the United States and British Empire. I think the artist wanted to demonstrate that despite being militarily inferior to its opponent, it has an immense will and desire to survive.

Works Cited

Copley, John Singleton. Watson and the Shark. 1778. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Web.

Milles, Ellen G. et al. “John Singleton Copley.” American Paintings of the Eighteens Century, National Gallery of Art, 1995, pp. 20-21.