Watson and the Shark (1778) by John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark - John Singleton Copley - 1782

Artwork Information

TitleWatson and the Shark
ArtistJohn Singleton Copley
MediumOil on Canvas
Dimensions182.1 x 229.7 cm
Art MovementRomanticism
Current LocationDetroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI, US
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About Watson and the Shark

Watson and the Shark is an iconic oil painting by John Singleton Copley, created in 1778. This dramatic composition depicts the terrifying moment of a shark attack on fourteen-year-old cabin boy Brook Watson. The painting challenged conventions of history painting and was an important progenitor of 19th-century romanticism. It is considered to be the most well-known out of John Singleton Copley’s famous paintings of the 18th Century.

The story behind the artwork is equally interesting. Brook Watson, who was once an orphan, became Lord Mayor of London when he grew up. He had a near-death experience as a teenager when he was attacked by a shark off the coast of Havana in 1749. In this painting, we see him being rescued from being bitten by sailors using oars to fend off the shark.

Copley painted three versions; however, it is believed that only two survived until today. The original version currently resides at Royal Museums Greenwich in London while another version can be found at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Critics often point to this painting as the reinvigoration of Copley’s career.

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