WATSON AND THE SHARK IN L.A.

I love LA! I could live in LA (except for all the driving). Maybe I could live in Venice Beach, or Santa Monica, and only drive every once in awhile. Do people in LA do that?

Or is that like living next to the ocean and only ever getting your feet wet because you’re afraid of sharks? I don’t do that, but, I confess I do think about sharks every time I’m in water over 3 feet deep (and sometimes under that, if it’s at all murky).

Speaking of sharks, while in LA, I had the tremendous good luck to see one of my all-time favorite paintings ever- WATSON AND THE SHARK.

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley, 1778

Usually residing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., WATSON was on loan to the LACMA (Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art) for a show called American Stories that runs until May 23, 2010.

The LACMA is a wonderful museum and the exhibit itself was a first-rate look at some great American figurative paintings from 1765 until 1915. (Homer Winslow was a bit of a revelation, in particular his painting THE COTTON PICKERS – reproductions don’t begin to do it justice.)

Anyway, WATSON AND THE SHARK did NOT disappoint in person. Diaphanous waves cresting on the swimmer’s body, ethereal boats in the distance; up close it is delightfully loose in stroke, with solid muscular shirts anchoring the figures in the boat. Singleton Copley was a master draftsman and the go-to portrait painter of the young colonies, and this painting was commissioned by a London merchant named Brooke Watson. It depicts an incident that happened when Watson was just 14 years old, and part of a ship’s crew with business in Cuba.

This is how Robert Hughes describes the event in his terrific book – American Visions; The Epic History of Art in America:

“As the craft rode at anchor in Havana Harbor, Watson went swimming over the side. He was about two hundred yards from the ship when a shark attacked him and dragged him under. The crew of the ship’s launch, which was waiting to take the captain to shore, cast off and rowed frantically toward the spot where the boy had disappeared. They saw him surface, disappear again, and bob up for a second time. The shark was making its third run at Watson when the crew drove it off with a boathook and pulled the mauled boy over the gunwale. Miraculously – Watson’s right leg was stripped to the bone from the calf down, and then bitten off near the ankle – the lad survived, though the ship’s surgeon had to amputate below the knee.”

So, great story, and a great painting… my favorite part is the shark, of course, and the fact that Watson had never seen a real shark in his life, had never see a photo (obviously), and had to pretty much make one up. Hughes speculates he worked from some preserved jaws of a shark, and then imagined the poor sucker with lips. I love that the shark is so wrong and freaky-looking with it’s lips, yet it doesn’t diminish the overall creepiness of the painting. (In fact, it probably adds to it.)

I imagine this pairing of artist and subject was a fortuitous one, as I find a certain creepiness in most of Singleton Copley’s portraits, even his ‘high society’ ones. If you get the chance, do check out WATSON live, and for all you art lovers out there, I highly recommend picking up Hughes’ book.

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