Moby-Dick and John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark

Article excerpt

The visual arts played a significant role in Melville's writing, and especially in the crafting of Moby-Dick. Scholars have identified many of the artworks that inspired Melville during the writing of his whaling novel. (1) However, this exploration is a continuing enterprise. Following Christopher Sten's call "to reassess Melville's [pictorial] sources" (3), I believe one noteworthy piece of art that deserves further investigation in its connection to Moby-Dick is John Singleton Copley' s painting, Watson and the Shark (fig. 1). I begin with a brief history of the painting and its interpretation. After showing how Melville likely had access to the painting, I then examine its probable effect on the writing of Moby-Dick. In particular, I argue that Copley's Watson and the Shark had a direct influence on the writing of Moby-Dick's Chapter 72, "The Monkey Rope."

Watson and the Shark is one of John Singleton Copley's most famous and highly praised paintings. In the late eighteenth century, "critics at the time celebrated both artist and canvas." (2) The painting has remained popular "since that time [because] many art historians have recognized [it] as a significant contribution to Anglo-American narrative painting." (13) The original painting and its copy, made by Copley in the same year, still occupy places of honor in both the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, respectively.

Primarily known for his portraiture, such as his famous portrayal of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere, Copley "was the most successful portrait painter in the colonies" (Masur 430). In 1774 he moved to England and began working more as a narrative, historical painter. (4) Emily Neff argues that Copley's narrative history painting follows the example of his contemporary Benjamin West, who "deliberately set out to elevate and monumentalize [the] contemporary subject in terms of scale and composition to the level of high art" (Neff 34). In this approach, the subjects of the paintings are considered historical not in that they belong to the distant past, but in that they are part of the ongoing construction of modern, present, continually evolving history. Such a cleaving to contemporary subject matter would also echo in Melville's work, as the author drew from his own experiences.

Working in this history-making mode brought Copley to depict an event in the life of Brook Watson, an orphan and amputee who rose to be Lord Mayor of London by the end of his life, and who most likely commissioned the picture when he was a merchant for the British East India Company in 1776-77 (Masur 434-5). When he was fourteen years old, Watson dove into Havana harbor from a merchant ship on which he was employed. According to what is most likely his own account of the incident, Watson was about two hundred yards from the boat when a shark attacked him (Masur 427; Miles 164). Seamen quickly made for the spot where they saw Watson disappear. When Watson surfaced after the second attack by the shark, a sailor with a boat hook beat off the shark's third attempt, thus saving Watson's life. However, Watson lost his right leg beneath the knee as a result of the encounter, and would wear a wooden leg until his death in 1807. The climactic third attack on Watson serves as the focus for Copley's painting.

One interpretation of Watson and the Shark that takes some precedence over the rest was appended to the painting itself, probably by its owner. The label describes the painting as "shewing that a high sense of INTEGRITY and RECTITUDE with a firm reliance on an over ruling PROVIDENCE [...] are the sources of public and private virtue [...] honours and success" (see Miles 165). Watson's personal history, and his painful rise from an orphan to a major political force, adequately reflects this sentiment (see Masur 427). Other interpretations of the painting are rather comprehensively outlined by Louis Masur (437-54). …


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