Painting the Unpaintable

Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710–1940

by Guy C. McElroy, with an essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Bedford Arts/The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 190 pp., $50.00

The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century

by Albert Boime
Smithsonian Institution Press, 256 pp., $24.95 (paper)

In 1778 a prosperous London merchant named Brook Watson commissioned John Singleton Copley to illustrate a traumatic incident in his youth. While swimming in Havana harbor in 1749, the young man was mauled by a shark and lost his leg. The story of his rescue, which Watson must have relived in his mind every day of his life and retold almost as often, is the subject of the picture now known as Watson and the Shark, which, for reasons that will soon be clear, is discussed at length in Albert Boime’s The Art of Exclusion.

No wonder Watson needed to exorcise his obsession by seeing it again: the picture is the stuff of nightmares. A terrified boy flails in the water just out of the reach of two of the sailors straining to rescue him. He is not quite able to grasp a lifeline thrown to him by a third. Meanwhile, a harpoonist lunges at the shark from the rowboat, as much to distract the creature as to kill it. If he succeeds, Watson may in the next instant seize the rope and be hauled on board.

Or he may not. When Copley sent the picture to the Royal Academy in 1778 its title was A boy attacked by a shark, and rescued by some seamen in a boat; founded on a fact which happened in the harbour of the Havannah. There was no mention of Brook Watson. While the title tells us the final outcome of the drama, the picture itself offers no relief from tension.

Only one of the boy’s legs is fully visible. There is blood in the water, so the shark has already attacked once and returned. At the center of the composition is a black man who has done all he can to help Watson by throwing him the length of rope. Now, like us, he must stand back helplessly and watch.

We need just an instant for our eye to take in the action, but much longer to understand its symbolic content. This would have been clearer to an English audience in 1778 than it is to us now. A boy attacked by a shark should be compared to a famous English picture painted and engraved ten years earlier. Both in size and theme it has much in common with Joseph Wright of Derby’s masterpiece, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump of 1768.

This picture also tells a good story. An amateur scientist has invited his family and friends into his study to watch him demonstrate the existence of the vacuum in nature, a question debated at this time as much for its theological implications as for its scientific validity. The scientist has placed a white dove in a glass bowl from which he is now pumping the air. The frightened bird sinks to the bottom of the bowl, helplessly beating its wings as the vacuum begins to crush its lungs. Unless the scientist readmits oxygen, it will convulse and…

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