Brook Watson had been sent to sea at fourteen; he decided to go for a swim while his ship was docked in the shark-infested waters of Havana Harbor. The painting depicts the moment when the shark is coming by for his third and possibly final attempt to make a meal out of Watson. The men in the boat were successful in harpooning the shark and heroically rescued the swimmer. Upon returning to the ship, Watson’s left leg was amputated and he was fitted with a peg leg. Later in life he became Lord Mayor of London and was often satirized, with his peg leg playing an important feature. This is one of three versions that Copley painted to commemorate the heroic rescue of Brook Watson. Rescue Group, a preparatory sketch made by Copley for Watson and the Shark, is also in the DIA collection (acc. no. 48.203).
Artist John Singleton Copley, American, 1738-1815
Title
  • Watson and the Shark
Date 1782
Medium oil on canvas
Dimensions Framed: 45 3/16 × 39 × 2 1/2 inches (114.8 × 99.1 × 6.4 cm)
Unframed: 36 × 30 1/2 inches (91.4 × 77.5 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund
Accession Number 46.310
Department American Art before 1950
On View American W270, Level 2 (see map)
Signed Signed and dated, lower left: Painted by J. S. Copley R. A. London 1782
Inscriptions Inscribed, lower left: Painted by J. S. Copley R. A. London 1782
before 1786, Noel Desanfans;
April 8, 1786, sale, lot 396, Christie's (London, England).
by 1791, W. Goddard;
February 5, 179, sale, lot 73, Christie's (London, England) [sold to Green].
G. P. Anderson (London, England).
ca. 1850, W. P. Hunter (London, England).
1946, dealer, M. Knoedler Co. (London, England);
1946-present, purchase by the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
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