Thursday, July 1, 2010


John Singleton Copley Paul Revere

Gilbert Stuart Paul Revere

Grant Wood The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

John Singelton Copley Watson and the Shark

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 28, 2010-May 23, 2010 / I attended the show on its closing day, May 23rd

On the very last day of the exhibition, May 23, 2010, my companion Howard Fox and I attended to Los Angeles County Museum of Art show American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, a show containing some of the most iconic images of American painting by major American painters such as Winslow Homer, George Bellows, George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, Thomas Eakins, and Mary Cassatt.

I will write of some of these works at a later time. But two of my special favorites were by the great pre-Revolutionary American painter, John Singelton Copley who by the time of the revolution had moved to England, where he would go on to express himself more as a British painter.

Earlier in his career, Copley painted at least two important images that represented—each in a radically different way—what the United States and the Americas in general were to come to represent. The first of these, painted in 1768, was a portrait of the silversmith Paul Revere, who sat for the painting. This work is also one of the most ironic paintings in the show, not necessarily because of authorial intent but simply because of the emblems Copley used, whether they were actual or imagined, to portray the nature of his subject.

By the time of the sitting Revere, who had gained attention as a silver craftsman in Boston, had also become highly involved with political agitators, producing several political engravings as well as taking political actions with the Sons of Liberty, a group of individuals—including Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Benjamin Edes and others—whose purpose was to incite change in the British government's treatment of the Colonies, actions which resulted in the Battle of Golden Hill just two years after Revere's painting and in the burning of the HMS GaspĂ©e in 1772.

The artist, on the other hand, was insistently neutral and would soon after marry into the Tory family of the Clarkes. Clarke, in fact, was the merchant to whom the tea that provoked the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773 was consigned. Copley himself wrote of that significant event, defending his in-laws. And in its aftermath, when patriots had threatened to have his blood if, as he had dined that night with the Loyalist Col. George Watson, he ever "entertained such Villain for the future," Copley protested, "What a spirit! If Mr. Watson had stayed (as I pressed him to) to spend the night. I must either have given up a friend to the insult of a Mob or had my house pulled own and perhaps my family murthered."

On the surface Revere is portrayed quite lovingly, a young man instead of the older one we know from Gilbert Stuart's portrait of 1813. Dressed in a linen shirt, at a time when linen was prohibited to Americans unless it was imported, the craftsman's handsome face, mirrored—as art historians have often pointed out—in the polished surface of the tea pot he has just completed, and his simple tools still resting on the dark mahogany work table, the image encapsulates the ideal of American achievement. Whereas, the linen shirt, it might be argued —and has been by Sister Wendy Beckett—could be construed as a patriot concession (in opposition to the ban, Boston seamstresses had produced that very year more than 100 yards of linen), the teapot was a emblem of the Tories alone. In protest to the tea tax, patriot Bostonians drank only what was described as "Boston Tea," a drink closer to punch.

The major irony, accordingly, is that this young patriot made a livelihood by producing an item unavailable or, at least, unused by his American fellows. Whether or not, as some have argued, Copley was simply balancing the parts, creating a figure in Revere who might appeal to all Colonists, he, nonetheless, succeeded in creating a thoughtful and appealing man, far different from the comical and satiric figure of Grant Wood's 20th century painting with its strange aerial perspective and ridiculously high pointed church spire below which, as if he were on a rocking-horse, Revere madly rides off.

There is something hilariously funny in Revere's ride as he runs to the church tower to watch British movements and speeds away to report what he has seen. The startlement of pigeons, the "trembling ladder," and the moonlight view of the town below is slightly ludicrous in Longfellow's famous poetic depiction of that night adventure:

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

In Grant's depiction the whole event echoes, what Longfellow's poem suggests was its intended audience, a children's tale ("Listen my children and you shall hear..."). Copley's stately portrait of a thoughtful and skillful man of crafts is a statement of willful industry aimed at adults.

The second painting, Watson and the Shark, is Copley's exciting and romanticized telling of the tale of a fourteen-year old orphan, Brook Watson, who served as a crew member on a trading ship. The young man, a natural swimmer, dove in for swim in the waters of Havana Harbor in a trip to the West Indies in 1749. Suddenly he was attacked by a shark who soon after bit through his leg which subsequently had to be amputated. The shark also bit off his other foot.
Watson was saved by his fellow crewmen, who, awaiting the arrival of their captain, drove their dingy forward into the waters to fight off the shark.

Despite his injuries, Brook Watson lived on, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of London, and commissioning the now-famous painting from his friend Copley. At his death, he bequeathed the painting to Christ's Hospital.

The melodramatic lone swimmer and shark in the front of the painting are carefully balanced by the crew of various ethnicities in the triangularly arranged grouping of nine figures, some trying grasp the failing swimmer, some rowing, another attempting to spear the beast, and others simply expressing their horror of the event. How different the depiction of this terrifying and chaotic accident is from the almost static portrayal of Revere— unless one imagines that in the mirrored image of the silver pot the smith has caught a glimpse the impending struggle of the Revolution and his own involvement in those battles.

Watson and the Shark is certainly a powerful depiction of an occurrence in the Americas, but is, strictly speaking, not at all about US life. Indeed the painting was done in 1778, four years after Copley had emigrated to London, and its subject was British, not an American citizen. Unless one understands "American stories," accordingly, in the broadest sense, this might be argued to not be an American tale at all, but rather a British or even a Cuban one. But who would quibble with the opportunity to see this great painting, which hangs in Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery, once again?

Los Angeles, June 30, 2010

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