Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley (1738–1815), 1778. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ferdinand Lammot Belin Fund.
An adventurous exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston should alter our views on the influence of early American painting and painters. American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World explores the way in which two colonial painters in particular, John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West, put American art on a world stage. If this comes as a surprise to people who think American art languished in provincial isolation until the mid-twentieth century when abstract expressionism burst on the scene, the exhibition’s curator Emily Ballew Neff and her catalogue (distributed by Yale University Press) will enlighten them. “There was always an interesting international aspect to early American art,” Neff says, explaining that the two centerpieces of the exhibition, Copley’sWatson and the Shark, and West’s The Death of General James Wolfe were disseminated internationally through prints, exciting attention for their depiction of an exotic new world. These dramatic historical paintings with their not unimportant inclusion of Indians and blacks brought the colonial world to a fascinated European audience. West, Neff says, knew how to play the colonial to great personal and professional advantage in England, but Copley’s daring in depicting a shark attack in Cuba (where he had never been) made him an equally alluring figure.
In addition to West, Copley, and their personal and professional rivalry, the exhibition will feature, among others, the paintings of Gilbert Stuart, George Romney, and John Trumbull along with works on paper and artifacts that tell the story of a transatlantic culture. This is an exhibition that should foster a good deal of discussion.
American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World · Museum of Fine Arts, Houston · October 6 to January 20, 2014 · mfah.org