Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Random Great Stuff: John Singleton Copley

My tastes in art generally run to more "modern" types -- the abstract expressionists above all.

So while the real highlight of my only trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington was its extensive collection of Rothkos, the real discovery for me was a world away in technique -- if not necessarily in sensibility.

John Singleton Copley was an artist (mainly a portrait artist) in colonial America (and England) in the late 18th Century. While his portraits are often distinctive (e.g., his portrait of Eleazer Tyng at the NGA) the NGA collection includes a couple of large paintings which are nothing short of startling.

His portrait of himself and his family is just hilarious. As a particularly distant Copley looks on from the back, smirk plastered on his face, we observe the wacky crew that is his wife, kids & father-in-law.

This is hardly your typical staid 18th century family portrait. Apart from Copley and one child, no one is even facing the viewer.

While all the kids seem rambunctious, Copley aims the most rowdy one directly at the neck of his father-in-law. Little doubt that this guy would rather be anywhere else in the new world than sitting there with this odious child clawing at him.

Think there might have been a little strife with the son-in-law after this portrait was completed?

The other most notable Copley in the NGA collection is "Watson And The Shark," probably Copley's most famous painting.

Like a production still from Jaws, 200 years before filming, the painting tells the harrowing story of English sailor Brook Watson's real-life tangle with a shark in the waters of Havana Bay.

But, of course, it's a story told with an eye on the absurd. The first question has to be, "Why the hell is young Watson completely naked?" Was he skinny-dipping? Did the shark devour his clothes as an appetizer before moving on to put the chomp on Watson? Was he rousted from some good old-fashioned British Navy sodomy and thrown directly into the briny deep?

And how in the world was he saved from what appears to be a seconds-later mastication? Harpoon through the eye of the great fish?

Perhaps the world's first action movie -- without the actual movement.


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