BEHIND the realism of Copley's dramatic scene showing the rescue of teen-age Brook Watson in Havana Harbor lies a religious allegory that monumentalizes the painting's meaning. Based on an actual event, Copley has transformed the saving of Watson into a salvation story. John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was not satisfied to be known as the greatest painter in the American colonies. No one, he lamented, wanted anything but portraits, and an artist who wished to rival Raphael and Rubens had no opportunity to paint great subjects in the epic style.
Copley left his native land in 1775, spent six weeks in London and a short period in Paris where he saw Rubens's great cycle of Marie de' Medici in the Luxembourg Gallery, and proceeded to Italy where for a year he filled his eyes and mind with the marvels of Italian art.
By the time he returned to London, where he lived for the rest of his life, he was ready to undertake the kind of monumental art that would give him a world-class reputation. In the 18th century, this meant ``history painting,'' painting that dealt with biblical, mythological, or ancient heroic narratives.
When Watson, who survived and later became a London merchant, commissioned Copley in 1778 to depict the horrifying event of his youth, the artist probably saw immediately the opportunity to enlarge the contemporary, secular occurrence into a vehicle of timeless and profound content.
Copley had been raised in a religious tradition that employed typology as a method of interpretation: Jonah swallowed by the whale and vomited up after three days in its body, for example, was seen as a ``type'' for Christ in the tomb; Jonah is thus a resurrection and salvation story.
Brought up in Boston, the artist was a member of the Anglican Trinity Church where he regularly heard sermons on resurrection and salvation and his cultural background insured his familiarity with the Scriptures. Added to this mind-shaping experience was also his familiarity with the Old Masters of Western art.
Preeminent in this period, in terms of prestige and influence, were Raphael and Rubens, and it was to them that Copley would naturally turn for aesthetic guidance and inspiration. ``Watson and the Shark'' is the creative flowering of Copley's general culture as a Christian, and his specific culture as an artist. There is furthermore the feature of realism that gives ``Watson and the Shark'' its vivid power and that particularly reflects Copley's American sensibility. The painting perfectly expresses in visual form what Perry Miller, the great Puritan historiographer, observed about American Puritan writing:
In the face of every experience [the Puritan] was obliged to ask himself, what does this signify? What is God saying to me at this moment?... The result ... was an insistent literalness that sometimes ... achieves a realism that is an implicit symbolism, because the plain statement of fact vibrates with spiritual overtones.... Concreteness ... where a great wealth of observation is employed for thematic assertion, is the supreme achievement of the Puritan esthetic.
Understanding Copley's mind trained by Scripture, and his eye by his study of the Old Masters plus the habits of painstaking observation, we see him undertake this commission to portray the real-life drama of Watson in terms of what was then considered history painting's most sublime subject - resurrection and salvation.
In Havana Harbor a naked youth is lying helpless on his back in the water, one arm raised. A shark, its mouth gaping in front view, as if to swallow the viewer, has swirled around for another attack, having already stripped the flesh from the youth's right leg. A boat has drawn near and two men reach out to grab the boy.
One man has thrown out a rope while another stabs at the monster with a boat hook to drive him away. These pictorial elements all play a role in the salvation story as used here by Copley.
In the Scriptures, the Leviathan is a monster of primeval chaos, symbolized by the formless sea. In Isaiah it is a sea dragon associated with the day of salvation when it will be killed. In Jonah (2:9-10) ``Salvation is of the Lord. And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.'' The boat-hook wielding rescuer recalls the Archangel Michael in Revelation who attacks the dragon and is depicted by Raphael, among others, wielding a spear in a somewhat similar pose.
Water itself, both as life giver and as a trial, is a pervasive symbol in Scripture. ``Save me, O God,'' sings the Psalmist (69:1-2) ``for the waters are come into my soul.... I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.'' The narratives of Noah and the flood and the passing of Israel through the sea are images of salvation associated with water, as is the ritual baptism.
The nudity of Watson must also be understood beyond the realistic portrayal of a youth who went out for an early morning swim. In Western art nudity sometimes represents a man who is not overcome by the evil and temptation that surrounds his ordinary activities. It symbolizes the high and desirable quality of the virtuous life.
The boy's pose, furthermore, demands attention. It should be noted that his upraised arm is not grasping for the rope or the hands of the rescuers. It is raised beseechingly to heaven as the true hope of deliverance. Watson's head, too, is turned upward, his eyes wide open as he prays for his salvation.
A reviewer in the ``General Advertiser'' of April 28, 1778, criticized the artist for the futile way the rope is handled, but we may believe that the uselessness of the rope was intentional, and that Copley meant to signify Watson's dependence on God for his salvation.
THE boat is a widely recognized symbol of the Church, and as such figures importantly in one of Raphael's greatest compositions, as well as in Rubens's ``The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,'' the essential narrative of salvation. Copley knew these compositions well from engravings he owned.
One of the most striking motifs in both the Raphael and Rubens is that of the men reaching out over the edge of the boat: They are pulling in the net which will be filled with fishes.
According to Luke 5:1-11 Jesus had said to Simon, ``Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.'' ``Master,'' Simon replied, ``we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.''
When they had done this they netted a huge number of fish. The disciples were overwhelmed by the great catch, but Jesus said, ``Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.''