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Watson and the Shark, 1778

John Singleton Copley

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund

oil on canvas

When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1778, this painting caused a sensation, partly because such a grisly subject was an absolute novelty. In 1749, 14-year-old Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in Havana Harbor. John Singleton Copley's pictorial account of the traumatic ordeal shows nine seamen rushing to help the boy, while the bloody water indicates the loss of his right foot. Miraculously, he was saved by his fellow sailors and went on to become a successful British merchant and politician. Commissioned by an adult Watson, the oil painting's enormous acclaim ensured Copley's appointment to the prestigious Royal Academy.