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Formal Analysis: Watson And The Shark

702 words - 3 pages


Watson and the Shark is oil painting by John Singleton Copley. This piece was made in 1778, as a depiction of a boy named Brook Watson attacking by shacks in Havana, Cuba, and his shipmates launching a valiant rescue effort. The piece’s present location is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. While this historical painting is a snapshot of a real-life event, Copley uses low value hues and spotlight effect on Watson as well as his shipmates, giving us equal or more attention to the people saving Watson. Moreover, Copley challenges the conventional history paintings by giving all the saviors on the boat the same attention, and each one is allowed to have his individual role in the rescuing process.
Watson and the Shark is a large oil painting on canvas measuring 71 3⁄4 in × 90 1⁄2 in. While Copley decides to depict the dramatic and decisive scene where Watson is about to be attacked by a shark, the shape of each man on the boat is carefully painted, and ...view middle of the document...

Specifically, Copley makes the painting lighter on the victim and on the shipmates, and uses deeper value hue to paint the shark. He does this to focus our attention on the people saving the person, and the deep value hue on the shark makes it look evil
When one observes Watson and the Shark, the texture of the painting is smooth and polished. Moreover, the dominant color of the painting is sea green with some brighter colors coming out of the background; the somber coloration contributes to the solemnity of the scene. The expressions of the rowers are more sad than horror struck. Motion and excitement is provided by the shark and Watson, but also by the man attempting to harpoon the shark, and by the two men reaching into the water towards Watson. Line is less important than shape in this picture; the human shapes, with exception of Watson’s are solid; his shape is drawn with more delicacy, something that serves to emphasize his vulnerability.
The composition of the painting is with a triangle formed by Watson and the shark. The triangle ascends from the bright body of Watson to two guys bending forward and are trying to rescue Watson, and finally to the motionless black man in the center of the painting. In this way, the simple triangular composition of the painting makes the violent action symmetrical around the black man in the center. While to his right all the people are trying to pull Watson in and to his left a man was stepping on the boat trying to slay the shack using his spear, it creates a sense of contrast, which underlines the vigorousness of the motion in the painting.
The iconography of this painting is interesting because it was based on an actual historical event. Specifically, while Brook Watson was swimming in Hanava Harbor, he got struck by the shark, and his right foot, as well as part of his right calf, were consumed by the shark. Even though the scene was based of a real event, Copley depicts it as a dramatic scene, transforming the rescue of Watson into a salvation story. Specifically, after this incidence, he went on to a successful business as well as political career, and finally became and very likely commissioned the painting.

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