John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778. Oil on canvas, 72" x 91."
Shark attack is not something that I associate with art or popular imagery prior to 1975, which was the year Jaws was released (remember that poster?). While sharks have apparently been around since long before man, their appearance in art was until very recently in our history an infrequent event. And I think that's the thing that makes this picture so striking: it's almost like finding the lead character from a post-1970 horror movie (Jason? Michael Myers?) in an 18th century painting. The knowledge that sharks at that time ate people no more or less frequently than they do today does nothing to diminish this weird disconnect, and makes the painting unceasingly interesting.
And of course, finding a painting interesting means you'll look at it longer, and if you look at it longer you find more things to look at. The picture has some of things that I find so objectionable about much of 18th century painting; particularly those kewpie doll faces and somewhat stiff poses reminiscent of Boucher and Fragonard. But there are other things.
There is some speculation as to whether or not Copley had ever seen a real shark, and the position of its eyes, the handlebar-moustache nostrils, and the strange lips would tend to support this view. Some say he had seen a set of shark jaws and built his imaginary beast out from there, but there is also the possibility he had seen prints or drawings made from life. In spite of this, the shark is probably the most convincing player in the scene, if not in terms of naturalisism, certainly in the visceral sense - this in contrast to the characters on the boat, who look like people from 18th century paintings. I think the reason for this is that there was no tradition for stylizing sharks, either historical or in terms of the painting conventions of the day. It might not have been possible for Copley to paint the fish accurately, but it was equally impossible to make it to a type, as is the case with the figures.
The teenage Watson, who ultimately lost half his right leg in the attack, looks a lot like a girl - his billowing blond hair blending into the waves call to mind the doomed Ophelia. Add to this his blinding white skin, his nudity, and his pin-up girl pose, and the androgyny is a little hard to ignore. The contrast of Watson's youthful nakedness with the merciless glass-eyed sea monster bearing down on him makes for a nautical drama which aspires (but doesn't match) compare to the horrifying splendor of Gericault's Raft of the Medusa.
There's other stuff to like in there as well, like the misty atmosphere and diffused light of Havana harbor in the background, which looks back at Venetian painting and predicts Turner. And the two would-be rescuers straining to reach the boy, clearly at full extension but just out a hair's breadth of reach - the stuff of Hollywood cliff-hangers to come. And the bizarrely comical framing of the rear rower's face in the harpooner's crotch; such a strange compositional choice.
With sincere apologies to Damien Hirst, if I could only have one piece of shark-oriented art in my home, the Copley would win hands down.