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Paul Mellon Centre | John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark” and the Taste for Flesh

November 24 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

“John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark and the Taste for Flesh”

This talk offers a new interpretation of Anglo-American painter John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778) and the politics of history painting. Commissioned by Brooke Watson, the painting pictures nine men, including a prominently positioned Black sailor, rescuing the young man from an aquatic adversary in the waters off Havana. Locating Georgian England in the broader circum-Atlantic world, I argue that Watson and the Shark is an allegory for the inter-imperial commerce and conflict that occasioned Watson’s incident. Throughout the eighteenth century, British and Spanish naval and commercial fleets had cooperated and competed over Cuba and its primary commodity, enslaved labour. Seeking to make a name for himself as a history painter, Copley exploited emerging, corporeal understandings of race in order to frame Watson’s singular experience as an event of public interest. As such, Watson and the Shark reveals the imperial and colonial significance of history painting as a genre. Its goal was not simply building a body politic at home, but defining Great Britain’s relationship to the world beyond its borders.

No prior art historical knowledge is necessary.

Georgian Provocations Series II is convened by Martin Postle, Senior Research Fellow, the Paul Mellon Centre.

Registration via Eventbrite is required and opens on 16 September. This series will take place in person at the Paul Mellon Centre and will also be streamed live via Zoom Webinar.

Nika Elder specialises in North American art, inclusive of African-American art, from the colonial period to the present. Her research and teaching focus on the mutually constitutive relationship between art and race. She is the author of William Harnett’s Curious Objects: Still-Life Painting after the American Civil War (forthcoming Autumn 2022, University of California Press) and has published essays on nineteenth-century and twentieth-century American art in the Archives of American Art Journal, Art Journal and the Routledge Companion to African American Art. Her second book focuses on Anglo-American painter John Singleton Copley and the transatlantic slave trade. Related research articles appear in Art History and Winterthur Portfolio. She is an Assistant Professor at American University in Washington, DC, the Field Editor for American art at caa.reviews and chair of the 2023 Feminist Art History Conference.

Image credit: John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, National Gallery of Art, Washington