Wednesday, August 8, 2007

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815)

Sierra Club


This gripping pictorial drama resulted from a collaboration between Copley and Brook Watson, a former English sailor. When Watson was fourteen in 1749, he had been attacked by a shark while swimming in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The blood in the water proves that Watson already has lost his right foot. Rushing to his aid, his shipmates register many different reactions, ranging from heroism to horror. Watson fails to catch a rope hurled by a West Indian. Meanwhile, boathook poised, a harpooner takes aim at the man-eating monster. Copley grouped the rescuers into a dynamic composition that forms the silhouette of a sharply thrusting triangle.

Brook Watson bequeathed the painting to a London orphanage, where it conveyed the reassuring moral that anyone can succeed through “activity and exertion”—as stated by the biographical plaque on the original frame. In spite of being orphaned himself and also disabled, Watson had earned ennoblement as a baronet.

The depiction of a noteworthy event in an ordinary person’s life was an American innovation. European painters normally restricted such harrowing scenes to saints’ martyrdoms. This unusual canvas caused a sensation that assured Copley’s international reputation after its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1778. A full-scale replica the artist painted for himself is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
- © 1991 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 16 August 1991 (2 ed.)


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English historical painter, was born of Irish parents at Boston, Massachusetts. He was self-educated, and commenced his career as a portrait painter in his native city. The germ of his reputation in England was a little picture of a boy and squirrel, exhibited at the Society of Arts in 1760. In 1774 he went to Rome, and thence in 1775 came to England. In 1777 he was admitted associate of the Royal Academy; in 1783 he was made Academician on the exhibition of his most famous picture, the "Death of Chatham," popularized immediately by Bartolozzi's elaborate engraving; and in 1790 he was commissioned to paint a portrait picture of the defence of Gibraltar. The "Death of Major Pierson," in the National Gallery, also deserves mention. Copley's powers appear to greatest advantage in his portraits. He was the father of Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst. [Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)]

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