Hanging Watson

A few weeks ago, I showed the last slide identification in the midterm for my American survey: Copley’s Watson and the Shark. Two hours later, beating the traffic odds, I was at LACMA overseeing the unpacking of the real thing—the centerpiece of the first room of American Stories. There is no thrill like watching a painting come out of the crate. It becomes an object, a real thing, not just an image like the fuzzy slide my students saw.

But then there are practical decisions that follow. I knew where it was to hang, but how high up? A big painting like Watson and the Shark takes up a lot of wall space, and this painting in particular takes more because the man who commissioned it, Brook Watson, placed a large wooden label along the bottom explaining what the painting meant to him, when he gave it to a charitable hospital on his death. Too high, and it would make the other paintings on the wall look like postage stamps; too low and there’s always a risk that someone might bump into the frame accidentally.

I consulted with our team at LACMA and emailed the National Gallery, asking them how high it hangs normally—the response wouldn’t come for a few days because of snow. In the meantime, the art handlers marked various options on the wall, and I taped out approximately where the other paintings would hang. But as they lifted Watson up—it takes five people—and it rose past the lower line, I stopped them. It was clearly going to look too high. And then I realized that at the NGA it hangs on the wall all by itself, and it doesn’t matter how high it is there. Context is everything.

So now we’ll use a stanchion to keep people back a little and keep the label from getting bumped. It won’t be as clean a look for the gallery but it’s OK, because now the wall has settled down as a group and all three paintings will work together.

Bruce Robertson, Consulting Curator, American Art

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