Monday, June 16, 2008
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.