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John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark Essay

One interpretation of Watson and the Shark that takes some precedence over the rest was appended to the painting itself, probably by its owner. The label describes the painting as “shewing that a high sense of INTEGRITY and RECTITUDE with a firm reliance on an over ruling PROVIDENCE are the sources of public and private virtue honours and success” (see Miles 165). Watson’s personal history, and his painful rise from an orphan to a major political force, adequately reflects this sentiment (see Masur 427). Other interpretations of the painting are rather comprehensively outlined by Louis Masur (437-54). In terms of the art theory of the day, as mentioned above, Copley painted a “historical” scene that “would invite its viewers to alter their conception of what constituted history” (Masur 437). The altered sense of history is “democratized,” allowing the viewer to see art as reflective of her or his reality and as potentially participatory (“I too could be one of those noble seamen!”). Of course, this is only the most rudimentary, and perhaps reductive, interpretation of the work.

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Masur further delineates approaches to the painting as “loosely categorized as philosophical, political, and racial” (439). The philosophical reading is based on religious connotations. Citing such sources as Raphael’ s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and St. Michael and the Dragon, and Rubens’ The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Jonah Thrown into the Sea, critics have generally read the painting as a treatment of salvation or of the struggle between man and nature. (5) Politically, the painting evokes the American Revolution. In social interpretations, critics have found the prominent placement of the black sailor in the painting to be “one of the most important representations of a black person in all of eighteenth-century Western art” (Masur 446). According to Masur, such readings may be alternately emblematic of Copley’s racism, in that the black sailor is merely a token presence, or of Copley’ s “statement on black identity and liberty” (446; see also 446-49).

Although much has been written on Melville’s familiarity with classical and European art, as they comprise the bulk of his personal collection and literary references, “Melville displayed a considerable interest in American arts and artists” (Robillard 26). Given Melville’s interest in art, it is very likely that he saw and took appreciative note of Copley’s Watson and the Shark as it hung in exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum in December of 1850.

Biographical evidence places Melville at the Athenaeum while Watson and the Shark was on display. According to the Boston Evening Transcript of 20 December 1850, Copley’s painting was still on exhibition since its arrival in May. (6) Jay Leyda’s Melville Log reports the following event in that year, occurring shortly after the Transcript notice: “BOSTON DECEMBER 30 Someone in the augmented Shaw household does some reading on M’ s current subject; charged on Shaw’s membership at the Boston Athenaeum: An Account of the Arctic Regions, with a History and description of the Northern Whale Fishery, by William Scoresby.” (7) The 1850 exhibition of Watson and the Shark at the Boston Athenaeum coincided with Melville’s move from New York City to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Melville’s wife and son spent Thanksgiving of that year in Boston in order to visit with her extended family, the Shaws.

Being within striking distance of Boston, Melville apparently took advantage of his proximity to the Athenaeum to avail himself of its library collection. Borrowing on the account of his father-in-law, a founding member of the Boston Atheneaum, had been a habit of Melville’s well established by this point. Leyda’s Melville Log cites similar borrowings from the Boston Athenaeum since at least March of 1846. (8) Trips to the Athenaeum when Melville was in Boston seemed to be a common occurrence: “When Melville and his wife visited the Shaw family in Boston during the 1840s, it would seem likely that he might take these occasions to visit the art exhibits at the Boston Athenaeum. […l he may have known quite a few details about the art collection through the exhibition catalogs regularly issued by the Athenaeum” (Robillard 27). Although there is no direct documentary evidence as to whether or not Melville himself made the December 30 visit to the Athenaeum, it seems likely that he was the one to have borrowed such a book.

There is little doubt that Melville knew the Scoresby text. Indeed, he cites it as an example of cetological accuracy: “f the Right Whale, the best outline pictures are in Scoresby” (NN MD, 265). Melville also tellingly comments here, “it is by such pictures only that you can derive anything like a truthful idea of the living whale seen by his living hunters” (265-66). Given that Melville’s eventual use of Scoresby’ s book should hinge on its pictorial content, the author may well have noticed the dramatic sea scene depicted in Watson and the Shark, which was “hanging in the Athenaeum when he borrowed the Scoresby book.

Indeed, Melville had a singular connection to both the Athenaeum’s art collection and Copleythrough his own family. According to John Gretchko, Allan Melvill “purchase a share in May or June of 1807 becoming a founding member,” and Melville’s grandfather or uncle Thomas Melvill, it is unclear which, purchased a miniature painting there in 1828. (9) That same year, a painting of Melville’s grandfather, Major Thomas Melvill, hung in the Athenaeum’s yearly exhibition. Hershel Parker notes that, for Melville, “family portraits became objects of intense reverence and curiosity.” (10) Therefore, it seems credible that Melville–who thought of his forebears as those “in whose veins coursed the blood of the earl of Melville House and the blood of remoter noble and even royal ancestors” (Parker 59)–would have felt some abiding familial connection to the Boston Athenaeum. Moreover, Melville’s family also had a specific connection to Copley. In 1762, Copley painted a watercolor-on-ivory miniature of Melville’ s great-great-aunt Deborah Scollay Melvill. (11)

Yet Melville also had a particular connection of his own to Copley at this point in his life. In August 1850, more than midway into his composition of Moby-Dick, Melville wrote “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” a review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse. It appeared in Evert Duyckinck’ s Literary World on 17 and 24 August 1850. Within Hawthorne’s book is the short tale “Drowne’s Wooden Image.” Though Melville does not mention it in his review of Mosses, “ could well have influenced Melville’s thinking” (Robillard 15). As Rita Gollin and John Idol have noted, one of the main characters in this tale is John Singleton Copley, whom Hawthorne characterizes as “a man of good will, sensitivity, and insight.” (12) Copley, in the tale, interacts with Drowne (another historical personality) as Drowne creates his life’ s masterpiece: a ship’s figurehead in the form of a beautiful woman. One can imagine that the object Drowne is crafting in the story would strike a chord with Melville, never far removed in thought from his seafaring days. Melville, ever the student of art, would most likely have stowed this fact away for future reference. Also, Melville greatly respected Hawthorne, who “has dropped germinous seeds within my soul” (Melville “Hawthorne,” 146), (13) Thus, it is most probable that Melville took special notice of Hawthorne’s inclusion of the New England artist in the story.

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Hawthorne, too, provided Melville with a connection to the Boston Athenaeum. Hawthorne “saw paintings, sketches and statues in the Athenaeum and read reviews of the annual Athenaeum exhibits” (Gollin and Idol 23) as early as 1836. Arlin Turner notes that Hawthorne borrowed numerous books from the Athenaeum library, and wanted more access than he received, as he did not “have membership in the Boston Athenaeum library to enable him to check out books” (14) as did Melville. The Athenaeum was liable to be at least one point of common ground between Melville and Hawthorne, one that they could speak of when they saw one another, as they did throughout the composition of Moby-Dick. Hawthorne and Melville had a shared link in their patronage of the Boston Athenaeum’s library; they both had an abiding interest in the visual arts; and a nautical painting by a famous artist featured in Hawthorne’s Mosses, recently reviewed by Melville, was hanging in the gallery of that very library. The convergence of all these factors suggest that the exhibition of Copley’s Watson and the Shark at the Athenaeum in 1850 would have been a very attractive draw for Melville. His family, social, and artistic connections to the Athenaeum make it likely that the gallery and library were part of his routine when in Boston. The evidence strongly suggests that Melville visited the Boston Athenaeum while Watson and the Shark was on exhibition, a painting connected to the author’s art, his friends, and his family. If he did see the work, there is little doubt that it is an image that would have stuck with him as he pondered Moby-Dick. And if so, it is likely that Copley’s painting played into Melville’ s vast use of art in Moby-Dick.

How would Melville interpret Watson and the Shark and how would that interpretation of the painting affect the writing of Moby-Dick? Obviously, the answers to these questions are a matter of some speculation. However, an argument by analogy to Melville’s use of other pictorial sources would serve well here. The most ambitious model of such a project to date is Robert Wallace’s dissection of the relationship between Melville and painter J. M. W. Turner in Melville and Turner: Spheres of Love and Fright. Wallace’ s argument is that “Melville made Turner his own in the process of writing Moby-Dick” (Melville and Turner 1). Wallace explores how Melville’s “exposure to art (and to Turner) through reading, conversation, and visits to galleries” (Melville and Turner 75) came to fruition in Moby-Dick. Wallace then identifies “Melville’s personal appropriation of art and artists in the context of the American culture of which he was a part” (Melville and Turner 309). Moving farther afield, Wallace examines the undocumented spiritual connection between Melville and Turner as they both “dive deeply into the imaginative spheres of love and fright, and display their essential brotherhood” (Melville and Turner 477). It is in this last vein that an educated guess can be made about Melville’s perception of Watson and the Shark.

That Melville would have been impressed by Copley’s painting, had he seen Watson and the Shark, is fairly safe to assume. The visceral mood of the piece would find an affinity in Melville’s artistic, “postpicturesque” (Wallace Melville and Turner, 479) sensibilities. Masur anticipates this connection when he finds that “the painting, to apply classical terms commonplace in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criticism of the arts and used in another context decades later by Herman Melville, who knew something of sailors and sea creatures, instructed ‘through terror and pity’ “(438-39). Roger Stein, in his publication of the Whitney Museum’s exhibition, Seascape and the American Imagination, also finds this kind of connection between Melville and Copley’s painting of Watson’s misfortune. (15) Stein notes that the “figures of Watson and the shark remind us of the possibility, as Herman Melville would later put it, that ‘the invisible spheres were formed in fright” (20). That paintings with which Melville was impressed were woven into his fiction is an established fact, as Wallace amply demonstrates. Therefore, as it is likely that Melville saw Copley’s Watson and the Shark at the Boston Athenaeum, the painting may have in some way informed the writing of Moby-Dick.

At the very least, Melville probably would have recognized in Copley’s painting the sources from which the artist drew, given Melville’s steeping in the Old Masters. He may well have recognized that “the arrangement of figures images of men in boats, such as Rubens’s and Raphael’s The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and Rubens’s Jonah and the Whale” (Miles 165). This connection to depictions of biblical stories of seafarers would jibe quite nicely with Melville’s composition of Moby-Dick since the “book was pervasively influenced by the Bible” (Parker 699).

Additionally, Melville would likely have been drawn to the figures themselves. The figure in the bow of the boat with the boathook is obviously reminiscent of harpooner on a whaleboat. The racial mix represented in the painting also would have spoken to Melville’s own experiences. However, as opposed to recent readings of Copley’s painting as “a self-conscious attempt to probe the meaning of race” (Masur 448), Melville would more likely have seen a reflection of his own experience on shipboard. While the Pequod may at times appear as a somewhat idealized view of racial harmony aboard a whaleship, Briton Cooper Busch argues that in reality “black and white, foreign and American, foremast hands were forced to tolerate each other’s existence in such circumstances, simply in order to survive.” (16) At the very least, Copley’s choices for the seamen reflect the heterogeneity common among contemporary ships’ crews. Indeed, Copley himself “strove for accuracy and realism” (Masur 447) in the painting. Accordingly, Melville may well have been struck by its verisimilitude.

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Copley’s painting most directly engages the question of the relationship between the black sailor and Watson in the painting to the “monkey-rope” episode between Ishmael and Queequeg. At first glance, in that the black sailor in the painting grasps the rope, but Watson does not, the work may signal a disconnection between the races. However, the rope linking the black sailor and Watson is clearly the source of the boy’s salvation in the painting. Whether read in a context of racial politics or as a meditation on religious or secular salvation, the scene in the painting makes a strong link between the rescuer and the victim. Howard Vincent has similarly argued that the monkey-rope in Moby-Dick “becomes a superb symbol of human brotherhood.” (17) The “Siamese connexion with a plurality of mortals” (NN MD, 320) that Ishmael comes to recognize in his own connection to Queequeg is equally represented in the black seaman’s connection to Watson.

The association between Copley’s painting and the monkey-rope episode becomes most closely twined in Melville’s following description of the shark episode in Moby-Dick:

And right in among those sharks was Queequeg;

who often pushed them aside with his floundering
feet.

Accordingly, besides the monkey-rope, with which
I now and then jerked the poor fellow from too close
a vicinity to the maw of what seemed a particularly
ferocious shark–he was provided with still another
protection. Suspended over the side in one of the
stages, Tashtego and Daggoo continually flourished
over his head a couple of keen whale-spades, wherewith
they slaughtered as many of the sharks as they
could reach. (NN MD, 321)

The accumulation of details seems too much to be simply coincidence. Like Watson of the painting, Queequeg is “among those sharks.” Watson has lost a foot to the shark while Queequeg “pushed them aside with his floundering feet.” A rope, controlled aboard ship, has been tossed to the helpless Watson to save him much as Ishmael “jerked the poor fellow from the maw of shark.” The image of the shark’s open maw itself is found prominently in Copley’s painting. Also, just like the two would-be rescuers who reach over the gunwales for Watson in the painting, Tashtego and Daggoo are “suspended over the side.” Finally, the seaman brandishing the boathook over the shark in Copley’s painting is in the same relative position as Tashtego and Daggoo as they “continually over his head flourished a couple of keen whale-spades.”

This presentation of the shark in Moby-Dick closely parallels readings of the shark in Watson and the Shark. The shark in Copley’s work, on the strictly narrative level, is the animal that attacked Brook Watson. So too, in Moby-Dick, are the sharks a simple reality, a natural by-product of the whaling industry. But, the shark in Copley’s painting has also been read in a religious context of “resurrection and salvation” (Jaffe 18), as “Leviathan a sea-dragon associated with the day of salvation when the sea-dragon will be killed” (18) and the soul resurrected. The shark, then, is the obstacle to salvation. Old Fleece’s famous “Sermon to the Sharks” also represents the shark as an obstacle to salvation. As they are “by natur wery Woracious” (NN MD, 295), the sharks’ animal voraciousness keeps them from taking Fleece’s meaning. Of course, this equation has a human counterpart in Stubb, who fails to heed the very sermon he compels Old Fleece to make as he indulges in his own gluttony.

It is this voracious, bestial nature of the shark that is most commonly read by critics. Not much critical appreciation of the shark episode goes beyond Vincent’s early analysis of “Stubb’s banquet and the shark’s feast ironic commentaries on each other, a grotesque antiphonal” (233). The parallel between the shark’s unmitigated ferocity and humanity’s failure to govern the animal in itself has been widely acknowledged by Melville scholars. (18) Hill presents the idea nicely by asking if “Melville suggesting that our own sharkish natures make self-governance and the consequent release of the angelic just as remote as in the animal kingdom?” (257). Such sentiments are certainly suggested in the philosophical readings of Watson and the Shark. It is the shark that Watson needs deliverance from, just as Stubb does, whether he realizes it or not.

It is a near certainty that Melville saw Copley’s Watson and the Shark at the Boston Athenaeum. The evidence points to Melville having a familiarity with the painting. Melville was deeply involved in the visual arts. This involvement is clear throughout his writing, and certainly in Moby-Dick. During the composition of Moby-Dick, Melville encountered a fictional Copley in his reading of Hawthorne’s Mosses, a work by which he was intensely moved. Melville had connections, both familial and through Hawthorne, with the Boston Athenaeum, where the painting was displayed during Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick. Documentary evidence suggests Melville’s presence at the Boston Athenaeum during the exhibition of Watson and the Shark in 1850. Finally, there are details both narrative and figurative in the text that are strongly tied to narrative and thematic details in the painting. This accumulation of the evidence strongly suggests that Melville knew Copley’s Watson and the Shark and brought that knowledge to bear in the drafting of Moby-Dick.

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John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark Essay
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One interpretation of Watson and the Shark that takes some precedence over the rest was appended to the painting itself, probably by its owner. The label describes the painting as "shewing that a high sense of INTEGRITY and RECTITUDE with a firm reliance on an over ruling PROVIDENCE [...] are the sources of public and private virtue [...] honours and success" (see Miles 165). Watson's personal history, and his painful rise from an orphan to a major political force
2018-07-19 06:58:13
John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark Essay
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