The dress is refined, but oversized and ill-fitting as befits a young boy. Here too, an Americanism is no doubt being added. Rather than make Henry Pelham appear too formal, as the scion of some great house in a European portrait, Copley reminds us that his subject is quite young and probably wearing hand-me-downs, or else some cost-saving garment into which he will eventually grow. It is a budding American disregard for class - a break with both the limners and the European masters. Copley's half-brother is both a young man of a good family and of a certain standing in society, and also any boy of the same age and similar means. In many ways, Henry Pelham comes across as a typical schoolboy. The way he holds string in his hand makes it appear like a pencil or pen that he is absent-mindedly twirling in his fingers as an unseen teacher continues with another tedious lesson. The desktop adds to this feeling, and the small glass of water might be doubling for an inkwell. Possibly, Copley means to give us the sense that his narrative, that is, the painter's, is actually being composed by the subjects of the painting - the boy and his squirrel. Like so many thinking Americans, Copley would have been conscious of the fact that his people were writing their own history, composing a narrative that did not quite fit with the age-old stories and traditions of Europe. The relative blankness of the background is well within European traditions of portraiture, but here it seems to serve for more than to make the human figure stand out to the viewer. In Copley's hands it is a metaphor for the "blank slate" that is both America, and the young boy. Each has a whole life ahead to make of it what he will. As well, the drape can be a curtain, as in a theater, concealing the drama that lies beyond. The simple straightforwardness of a boy, a face so easily read in the bright light, can conceal great complexity, dreams of the future, and infinite nuance. America might have appeared provincial, but there was much going on behind the scenes, not only inner turmoil, but dreams for a great future. Anything could happen on the stage behind that curtain. If only we could shift that light from the boy's face to what lies beyond.
In 1774, John Singleton Copley moved at last to England. There his fame and importance would increase a she received commissions from George III and other notables. He would further refine his academic skills and continue to paint portraits that were inspired by the twin factors of the European classical tradition and his own uniquely American experiences. Much of the American experience revolved around a closeness to nature, and the resulting battles that ensued between human beings and sometimes overwhelming natural creatures and forces. Nature, like America, was vast; uncontrollable, and unpredictable. European painting typically demanded careful realism of form and extreme mathematical precision in composition and construction. Like the myths that were such frequent inspirations for European art, the works of academically-trained European artists followed strict models. A story could only be told in a particular fashion and certain symbols used to create a narrative that would be understood instantly by anyone with the proper education and training. Like the geometrically-arranged trees and flower beds of Versailles, and many an Italian palazzo, nature conformed to Arcadian norms. It was either pastorally tame, stage set or backdrop as in the works of Poussin, or wild in a studied sort of way as in the best paintings of the Dutch landscapists. As usual, John Singleton Copley took an American approach to both the historic painting and the landscape. Like many of his countrymen, he had learned to put together what worked, and so he took two different genres and fused them into one in his master Watson and the Shark (1778). In this, one of his greatest works, Copley portrays an actual event, and one that combined the sweep of personal history with the roiling power of nature. Powerful human emotions combine with a living nature as man faces beast. In Watson and the Shark, Copley portrays an actual shark attack that occurred in the Caribbean, capturing the awful assault at its most terrifying moment. Watson and the Shark is raw emotion stripped of any pretense of academic nicety. The victim of the attack, white and naked, floats helplessly on his back in the sea as a gaping-jawed shark rears out of the waves. The look of terror in the man's eyes is matched by the carnivorous ferocity of the large, fixed eyes of the shark. Only the shark's head is visible above the waves, the color of his body almost matching that of the sea. He is a creature of the sea; at one with it. By contrast, the man is like a helpless piece of flesh awash in agony, and completely out of his element - a mere morsel for the predatory creature that lunges toward him. Dorsal fins in the background show us that there are nearby like the shark, that this creature is not alone in the water... unlike the man whose only companions are a crowd of men in a tiny boat. They can only hope to get to him in time. Most of them can do nothing but turn away. They are helpless, too. One man, his face shadowed, aims a harpoon down into the water at the shark as another man reaches out to try to grab Watson's outstretched arm.
The men on the boat are representative of all men. They are Black and White, fairly well-dressed and rather ill-clad. They are old and young. Some try to hide their disgust and terror, while others rush frantically to attempt to help the threatened and already injured man. It is the whole human world in a tiny boat. The main ship floats in the far distance. These people are alone, but not as alone as the pitiable, pale man in the water.
Copley's contemporaries immediately recognized the uniqueness of the scene and its manner of portrayal. The painting's original owner wrote the following note on the back of the canvas - "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."
His was a highly moralistic view, and typical of the European sense of the ultimate meaning of historical painting. As with other historical scenes, this one is scene in the context of the larger myth, the larger themes of human existence and purpose. A human being triumphs over the darker forces of nature by living according to God's plan. He appeals for God's aid, and believes firmly in the power of the Divinity to preserve him from harm. Moral and physical good and evil are inextricably linked in a very civilized and theological way. The good man, the virtuous man, will come through the ordeal unscathed for, in the end, that is what it is - a challenge, test put forward by Providence, one which the unfortunate man in the sea must pass. However, it is not clear that this is Copley's view of the matter. In genuine American fashion, humanity and nature are opposed but complimentary. The vastness of nature, the absolute mastery of the sharks in their element is contrasted to that of the lonely emissaries of humanity in their tiny boat. They are helpless because they do not belong. A man is reasonably fine on the ocean as he long as he stays on board a ship, but once he crosses the boundary, his fate is in the balance. Only sheer strength of will combined with human ingenuity and the strength of the group pulling together can achieve victory over nature's most deadly assaults. These are the lessons of a life lived on the edge of a frontier. All of America was frontier in those days. Even Boston, one of the great "metropolises" of the colonies was not very far from the edge of settlement and the boundless forests with their wild animals, "savage" races" of human beings, and dangerous, killing storms and other natural calamities.
So innovative was John Singleton Copley that Watson and the Shark actually anticipated the Romantic Movement in painting by several decades. The sheer emotionalism of the work marks it as little else. Almost everything about the picture is depicted in terms of feeling, of how human beings react without thinking to emotionally-charged situations such as the threat of immanent death, and the fear and altruism that produces. Copley's newness to the European scene, and his lack of formal training enabled him as an outsider to initiate changes that would probably…