We were brought to the museum, as children often are, to look at ancient things from Egypt. Elsewhere in the galleries were ancient things from Rome and China and Greece, but only in the Egyptian collection was there the threat of seeing a dead body. The promise. We were ten. Of course we wanted to see one, even if it was the teachers’ idea. Perhaps they thought: if you satisfy the bloodthirstiness of children in an art museum they will be less likely to stab each other with compasses during math class.
This was 1975, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the era of disaster movies: ships upside down, towering infernos, earthquakes. I liked disasters. The year before, in fourth grade, I had written a paper on the immolation of the Hindenburg. Mummies weren’t a disaster: so many dead, so little interest in how they died.
On the way to the mummies we happened upon Watson and the Shark.
It’s an odd painting, awful and hilarious, charged, inexplicable, literal. A disaster movie, an eighteenth-century one. There’s Watson, a naked figure fallen into a city harbor, hair streaming behind him. There’s the shark, rising up with its awful mouth, getting ready to bite off the swimmer’s head.
You can tell the painter is not overly acquainted with sharks. This one has the sensual lips of a movie villain and slanted, prominent nostrils. At the same time, the shark is familiar, iconic, and it seems almost impossible that John Singleton Copley, son of Boston and portraitist of Paul Revere, among others, has not seen Jaws.
Or at least when I first saw the painting in the mid-’70s, it seemed impossible. We, Miss Capuzzo’s fifth-grade class, had not seen Jaws ourselves, but somebody’s cousin had, and had related the plot, which had been passed around the fifth-grade class like samizdat. When you’re a child, this can happen: you can know everything about a movie you’ve been forbidden to see, you’ve heard so many awful details you’ve made a new movie out of rumors and nightmares and jokes. We had all seen our own versions of Jaws. Now here it was again. We were never going in the water again.
In the painting, above the man and shark, is a dinghy come for rescue, with a crew of nine men arranged in a pyramid, old and young, reaching into the water or pulling oars or holding onto a shirt to make sure another man doesn’t end up overboard. I didn’t notice them at first, though they take up a lot of room, each man with a slightly different expression on his face. An African man stands nobly at the peak of the pyramid. An old man scowls. One man angles a harpoon down like St. George intent on slaying the dragon, heroic, dull. Every man is dull, when there is a shark in the water.
We laughed at Watson and the Shark, I’m certain: it was startling and terrifying. At first we thought the swimmer was an old woman, because of the streaming hair and because, while we knew very little about the history of art, we were quite sure women and children were regularly naked in paintings but not men—with one notable exception, and even He generally wore a bit of cloth.
But it was a male body, bare-chested and pale in the water, the left leg up at an anatomically impossible angle to keep him modest. In the painting his hair looks gray. A little blood spools off his leg. He’s been bitten. Copley paints the shark angled up, mouth open, ostensibly to bite off Watson’s head, but it’s aimed at the viewer’s head, too. You want to put your head in that maw. I wanted to put my head in it. I wanted to be bitten.
What seemed clear to me was that the shark was in love with Watson. I might have been too young for Jaws but I did watch, with terror and pleasure, the Creature Double Feature every weekend on channel 56. Everyone knows that what drives the monster, what makes him ugly and also fatal, what will prove fatal to him, too, in the end, is love.
In the painting Watson reaches over his head—he’s swimming, or trying to snag the rope that’s been thrown by his rescuers—but his hand is aimed at the shark. Who can blame the shark for thinking he’s being beckoned? Who can blame him for rushing forth toward the blood he himself has raised in the water, the beauty of it? I will devour you.
I was ten. I knew about inexplicable love. I knew about dreams of being the only person naked while everyone around me was clothed.
We went off to the mummies.
Watson and the Shark is a disaster movie, but it’s also a documentary. When he was sixteen years old, Brook Watson went swimming in Havana’s harbor in Cuba—that’s why he was naked—when he was bitten by a shark. The second bite took off his right foot. Watson was rescued, had the leg amputated and replaced by a wooden one, grew up and became Lord Mayor of London. It’s an unusual subject for the time, an actual event painted relatively soon after it occurred, with a character of African descent depicted with compassion and care at the top of the painting’s composition. The painting’s an origin story, in other words, of both a man and his disability. This moment is the making of him. He was the one who had it commissioned.
Now that I’ve come this far, I’m not even sure that I first saw Watson and the Shark on a field trip, though that’s how I remember it. My parents did take me to the MFA pretty often. Perhaps my feelings of seeing it were so scalding and emboldening that I have had to mentally surround myself with all of the fifth grade to get at the actual feeling. What was that emotion? Uncanny hilarity, edged with dread and romance. Disbelief cut with overwhelm: there’s too much to understand entirely; the artist is keeping me busy.
All I can say is that certain art—my favorite sort—strikes a kind of private, glorious, shameful nerve in me, like a homely toy with a music box at its heart which plays my favorite tune.
My footfall still quickens when I’m in the MFA, approaching Watson and the Shark, as with any beloved. Will I feel the same way? Will I even find it? The museum has remade itself several times in the past forty years, and I’m never certain where it is.
I remember stepping back when I first saw the painting, as though if I got too close I would be implicated, even caught. I would step into the painting and the water would close up behind me. It was what I longed for. I fought it. I longed for it again.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of six books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, and the recently released Bowlaway.