Copley’s original sketch for Watson and the Shark shows only white men. Yet, when he painted the dramatic rescue scene on canvas—his first large-scale history painting—he rendered the figure at the apex of the group as a black man, carefully capturing his downturned gaze and outstretched hand. The change reveals a conscious decision, one that Copley maintained in a second version of the canvas after selling the first. The second version of the painting hung in Copley’s studio during his lifetime and hangs in the MFA today.
Watson and the Shark created a sensation in 1778 for its radically modern take on history painting, and art historians have long described how this painting is political. The contexts of the American Revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, and Copley’s own conflicted politics have yielded many different and equally convincing interpretations. At the MFA, a Remix inspired by the Broadway musical Hamilton offers a new framework for considering Watson and the Shark and other highlights of Revolutionary-era art. In writing Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda seized on Alexander Hamilton’s humble beginnings and great aspirations, drawing on his own Puerto Rican background to illuminate Hamilton’s identity as a Caribbean-born immigrant. Just as Copley reworked Watson and Shark (a scene set in Cuban waters) to include a black sailor and consequently opened the interpretative possibilities, Miranda consciously cast performers of color to play white historical figures in his work of art. If Copley created a modern history painting, then Miranda created a modern history play. Indeed, when questioned about Hamilton’s look and sound, Miranda has explained, “This is a story about America then, told by America now.” But importantly, Watson in the Shark suggests that “America then” was also a place of diverse peoples and narratives, where “revolution” never had a single meaning or skin color.
Above: John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark (detail), 1788. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. George von Lengerke Meyer. 89.481
Layla Bermeo is Kristin and Roger Servison Assistant Curator of Paintings in Art of the Americas.