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Monday, June 16, 2008

First Field Trip Part 5; The Picture With the Shark In It


Despite the fact that the National Gallery has the only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in America, the dish-faced Ginevra de'Benci, as well as slew of wonderful Degas (my favorite artist by far), Vermeers (3 1/2, including the perfect Red Hat) and caricature busts by Daumier (the whole Legislative Belly); despite all that, the National Gallery painting that first made an impression on me is the one with the shark in it. It's called Watson and the Shark and it's by John Singleton Copley and it scares the pants off every kid who sees it, in an enjoyable kind of way. Brooke Watson, here depicted getting his foot chewed off, later became a wealthy London merchant and eventually Lord Mayor of London, and he bragged about his shark misadventure incessantly, even featuring a disembodied foot on his coat of arms. His political opponents circulated a snarky rhyme about how much he would've been improved if the shark had gotten his head instead. He sounds insufferable. But he commissioned this painting, beloved by schoolchildren all over DC.

I also remember going to the National Gallery back in the early 60s, when the Mona Lisa came to town. My mom and I stood in line forever, eventually entering a long room hung with deep red velvet curtains, and on the far wall there she was, large as life and twice as natural. I'd remember it even more vividly if Leonardo had somehow worked a shark into his composition.

UPDATE: In an almost unbelievable bit of harmonic convergence, my wife has this drawing of Brooke Watson on the computer desktop. She's doing an Art Ace class today at the elementary school, where a parent volunteer comes in and talks about an artist or arwork and the class does a little project based on it. And today by golly she's doing Watson and the Shark. I didn't know about this till after I'd started posting this series. I see the Hand of Fate in this; or maybe the Foot.

10 comments:

Mark Anderson said...

I want my coat of arms to include Watsons!

here today, gone tomorrow said...

I just need to interrupt this wonderful series to register my rising apprehension about Petey's recital. Because Alice's dress is starting to itch.

Again.

B Moore said...

The weird lips on that shark always disturbed me. Do sharks have lips? I guess it's not worthwhile to get in close enough to find out.

John Glynn said...

Sharks do have lips, but are still widely regarded as one of the worst-kissing species in the whole ocean.

Dale said...

Well, my wife and I had to google the painting, of course -- hopefully the link will work --

http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/watsonbig.shtm

but my wife thinks that, like all great art, it poses more questions than it answers, to wit

1) why is he naked?
2) why is there somebody's head between the legs of the man trying to spear the shark?
3) why was he in the water in the first place? Just swimming about the harbor, or what?

richardcthompson said...

Check out this lengthy story from the same site-

http://www.nga.gov/feature/watson/story1.shtm

Robert said...

Only a cartoonist would consider a 63 word explanation to be a "lengthy story," but it does answer a few of Dale's pressing questions.

1) Just swimming about a harbor in Cuba, which at the time was a "clothing optional" harbor.

2) He's being valiant

3) Mojitas. Lots and lots of mojitas.

richardcthompson said...

But wait, Robert, there's more! Click on the Next link under the first bit, the thing goes on forever.

Piers Baker said...

This is amazing Richard because a painting that had a similar effect on me and my brother as kids is "The Death of Major Peirson" by the same John Singleton Copley. The painting of the climax to the Battle of Jersey held us spellbound when we saw it at the Tate Gallery in London. Makes me feel a bit queasy just thinking about it. Think I better sit down.

You can see it here:
http://www.jeron.je/thatwasjersey/invasionsfiles/CN104huge.jpg

richardcthompson said...

Yikes! Thanks, Piers, that was large and gory!

Some art historian should do a paper on this, and call it John Singleton Copley; Disturber of Children.