I recently watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws… so, when I saw John Singleton Copley‘s Watson and The Shark which is allegedly based on a real life story — this painting felt like a home run. While there are many shark paintings floating around, let’s try to figure out what makes this one in particular feel so terrifying, and also so timeless.

Let’s examine based on background, foreground, and characters, lighting & color… For those whom have been reading the Painted series, you’ll notice that I often investigate paintings by the aforementioned means. Ultimately, we talk about symbolism and other abstractions — but, much like the film director, it is only through background, foreground, characters, as well as lighting & color that they’re able to articulate their vision concretely. Historical context, motivations and the other abstract like can often get “lost in translation.”

So, for starters, the background… a relatively clear blue day, likely early morning or afternoon… a period of transition as evidenced by the yellow light low in the sky. This period of transition combined with the far off frigates and what appear to be a port city on land seem to imply that life goes on irregardless of what’s happening in the foreground of one’s life. In a strange way, the varied boats and near civilization seem to increase the discomfort as opposed to assuage it — mostly because it implies that life at large does not care about the problems of the individual.

In the foreground, we have our individuals — a youth whom is overboard, his peers on the boat, and the shark. The shark is a wild beast attempting to eat the naked (and vulnerable) youth. We might add “careless” to the descriptors of the youth. His nakedness implies that he decided to go for a swim (thus tempting fate — and the shark) as opposed to having fallen overboard.

The looks on the faces that Copley portrayed seem to convey much in the form of empathy, sympathy, and terror — especially those faces that we can most easily see. Yet, the only character who appears a man of action… his face is cast in shadow. It seems to imply that in order to fight the darkness, one must look into it. It’s also worth mentioning that the harpoon-man with his hair flowing back, his foot balanced on the bow of the boat, face determined and harpoon/spear poised — his position is quite similar to other portrayals of Saint Michael or Saint George defeating dragons, demons, or Satan.

To me, this painting is haunting and frightening because it implies that we are not safe wherever we may be, yet in order to preserve our security we must be willing to look into and thus confront the darkness.

|| JOHN SINGLETON COPLEY: WATSON AND THE SHARK

| National Gallery of Art |

Watson And The Shark by John Singleton Copley / Highlark
Watson And The Shark