Moments of Horror Captured in Works of Art

Painting of Watson and the Shark by
Painting of Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for Sara and Sandy to realize that their art history professor, Mr. Arscott, was up to his old tricks again.  The students were sleepy.  The large room was dark to facilitate the slide show.

Arscott yelled, “Bam!”  A wall-sized projection of “Watson and the Shark,” by John Singleton Copley came up.  “Pow!” Up on the wall went “Lion Attacking a Horse,” by George Stubbs.  “Sha-zam!”  “The Nightmare” by John Henry Fuseli flashed on the wall.

Arscott then rotated the three slides quickly as they flashed on the wall in a loop.  Click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click—the sound of the slides advancing was irritating.

None of these rather gruesome images were new to the students.  Most were art majors and they were very aware of them, had had a long-time interest in all forms of art.  To see them in Technicolor on a huge wall, was quite a shock, however, as were Arscott’s theatrics.

“Well, that got our attention, as we were drifting off to sleep,” Sara whispered to her buddy, Sandy, as they sat midway up the room in banked chairs.  They were the kind of chairs that had arm desks attached to one arm and storage underneath. Most were covered with graffiti.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here they are!  They will be on your final exam and you will need to write several paragraphs about each one!” Arscott exclaimed.  “I suggest you do further research.”

“Holy cow,” Sandy whispered to Sara.

Arscott continued, “These three paintings are part of the Romanticism movement, as mentioned in our bible, History of Art by H. W. Janson.  It occupies the timeslot from 1750-1850 and runs parallel to Neo-Classicism.  There is no doubt in my mind that in the future, these two movements will be further scrutinized and perhaps renamed, but for the purposes of this class, that is what we will call them.  Romanticism involved the breaking away from Baroque—and evoking romance about authentic feelings.”

“So confusing…” Sandy griped under her breath.

Painting the Lion and the Horse
Painting Lion Attacking a Horse by George Stubbs

“When we look at “Watson and the Shark,” we are horrified, along with the crew of the boat that is trying to save him.  He is about to die a grisly death.  As you do your research, you may be surprised to find out who commissioned this painting,” Arscott rolled on, “And when did the English painter, Stubbs, break away from his comfortable career of painting racehorses to paint this bizarre and shocking subject matter?  Finally, what important creative people, were influenced by Fuseli’s creepy painting of The Nightmare? You may be surprised at the answers to all of these questions, but I am expecting you to go into it in detail on your final.  The essay questions should include, names, dates, tidbits, as usual.”

Studying for the art history final was a awful chore, but Sandy and Sara decided it would be less painful if they did some of their reviewing together.

They compared all of their notes in the days before the exam.

“Well, Watson lived,” Sara announced to her friend.  “The fourteen-year-old cabin boy who had decided to take a swim, was rescued dramatically in Havana Harbor on the third attempt.  The shark did claim his right foot and part of that leg.  When he returned to England and recuperated, he, himself, commissioned John Singleton Copley, who had moved to London, to paint his misadventure—isn’t that wild?   Brook Watson had become a successful merchant and politician, despite his injuries.  He felt an American artist might be able to capture the raw drama more accurately.  Copley had never seen Havana Harbor or even a shark, so he had to research other artists.  He made several copies of the painting.”

Sandy added, “Stubbs loved horses and spent his lifetime commemorating them in art.  Can you imagine his horror when he was on a visit to North Africa and he actually witnessed a lion killing a horse?  He was so haunted by what he had seen there, that he developed a new type of animal picture—one that evokes a feeling for the unstoppable violence of nature.  The pure, white horse is terrified and defenseless against both the approaching storm and the lion.”

The Nightmare
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli influenced Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Mary Shelley

“The disturbing painting of The Nightmare—it is a product of Swiss painter, Fuseli’s, own mind, and the dream so haunted him that he painted several versions of the same mental scene.  The incubus is painted differently in the paintings, but this is the version Fuseli favored.  It has influenced many other artists and writers, including Mary Shelly, Edgar Allan Poe and possibly William Blake,” Sara said to her friend.  “Any of these three painting is so disturbing that if you see it once, you will never forget it.”

“Agreed!”  Sandy exclaimed.


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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Sara, so many great works of art I see hanging in famous museums deal with the mysteries of death and the horrors of violence. The same can be said of great novels as well. I guess that’s the reason why everyone wants to stop and watch the aftermath of car wrecks.

    • Sara Marie Hogg

      I think we all have a touch of the rubber-necker (ambulance chaser) in us. Otherwise, the Enquirer and other tabloids would not do so brisk a business. Before we had photography, these great works of art and writing were our only clues about the reality of what has been. Some of the paintings by Goya and other painters who recorded war scenes or wrote about them, Hemingway, are thought-provoking and shocking but need to be seen/read. It is part of our history lesson.

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