John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark was inspired by an event that took place in Havana, Cuba, in 1749. Fourteen-year-old Brook Watson, an orphan serving as a crew member on a trading ship, was attacked by a shark while swimming alone in the harbor. His shipmates, who had been waiting on board to escort their captain ashore, launched a valiant rescue effort. As the sailors hurried to Watson’s aid, the shark repeatedly attacked the struggling boy. During the first assault, the shark stripped the flesh from Watson’s right leg below the calf. In the second attack, the shark bit off Watson’s foot at the ankle. Copley minimized the gore associated with such an attack, but traces of blood are visible in the water and on the shark’s mouth. The composition is cropped to suggest the right foot is missing.
In April 1778, while Copley’s painting was on exhibit in London’s Royal Academy, a detailed description of these horrific events was published in a London newspaper. The text, believed to have been penned by Brook Watson himself, describes the scene in excruciating detail, ultimately reassuring readers that thanks to the surgeon’s skill, “after suffering an amputation of the limb, a little below the knee, the youth received a perfect cure in about three months.”
Watson eventually became a successful merchant in London. It is likely he commissioned the painting from Copley, whom he probably knew through members of the artist’s family. Copley and Watson probably met in London during the summer of 1774, when the artist was passing through London on his way to Italy. On August 17, he wrote, “To Morrow I… Dine with a Mr. Watson.” The shark attack made an indelible impression on the British statesman, who often recounted tales of his youthful adventure in the Caribbean.