Even today, when few people except professional sailors and fishermen are compelled to step foot on a boat, shipwreck is a powerful fear. Drowning may be a relatively painless way to go, but the idea of a cold, lonely death in a howling sea can make the most dedicated landlubber’s spine tingle.
With thousands of miles of coastline, and a burgeoning immigrant population arriving by boat, that fear was vividly felt by millions of Americans in the 19th century, when shipwreck was not just something one read about in Shakespeare, but a common and terrifying disaster, claiming hundreds of lives every year.
In 1884, Winslow Homer painted a large and dynamic canvas that played on the fear and fascination of maritime disaster. “The Life Line” depicted the rescue of an unconscious woman by a heroic male figure whose face is obscured by a billowing red shawl. The two figures sprawl on a “life chair,” suspended from a taut life line that connects the ship to shore. They dangle precariously above a ferocious trough of churning waves, and with neither the wrecked boat nor the safe shore in sight, they seem suspended in time, not yet safe, but happily above the watery maw that foams and sprays all around them.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has devoted an entire exhibition to the Homer work, analyzing a small sub-genusof sea painting that turns out to have deep roots not just in the history of maritime art, but in philosophical, historical and political debates as well. “Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and ‘The Life Line’ ” brings together diverse strands of intellectual history, from the now largely forgotten tradition of lifesaving and rescue along the Atlantic seacoast to the persistent question of American exceptionalism: Are we the sort of people who put women and children first, who will go to exceptional lengths to preserve life, or are we a dog-eat-dog nation, where every-man-for-himself is the ruling ethos?
Homer’s picturewas a popular and critical success during the artist’s lifetime, but it has been overshadowed since by his later sea paintings, in which the abstract drama of water takes precedence over the narrative drama in “The Life Line.” Homer was never really comfortable painting faces, and his figure painting is often clumsy. But in “The Life Line” he finessed his weaknesses, obscuring the male face entirely and painting the woman lost in an expressionless swoon. What emerges is the pure drama of their predicament, and the implied sexual tension in their close embrace.
Homer was building on a long and established tradition of shipwreck painting. The exhibition uses a 1772 painting by the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet (borrowed from the National Gallery of Art) to show the respectable roots of this often overly melodramatic and formulaic genus. But it also includes several decidedly lesser samples of what was a common recipe: broken masts and surly skies, drenched and exhausted survivors clambering ashore, brooding rocks and wild water framing the human tragedy.
By the 19th century, the iconography of rescue — from all manner of disasters including fire — was a convenient way to broach sexual themes. Just as religious ecstasy was a safe way to suggest sexual pleasure, women could be placed in the arms of strong men without any overt scandal so long as the man was a rescuer, doing his heroic, manly duty. Women’s bodies could also be depicted a bit more lasciviously than was normally allowed if they were dead, washed ashore and scantily clad. Wet T-shirts were okay so long as there was a good reason why they were wet.
Two popular images by the atrocious 19th-century artist Henry Edward Dawe show the range and reach of this conceit. The 1832 “My Child! My Child!” shows a woman overboard, holding her baby aloft in hope of rescue. “They’re Saved! They’re Saved!” completes the drama, with a sailor plucking them from the water and hoisting them to safety. But the content of the images is mildly pornographic: The bare breasts of the woman and the rippling muscled back of the sailor. Displayed nearby are two porcelain vases that use the same Dawe images as decoration and there are subtle but telling differences between the prints and their reproduction on a standard bit of houseware: There are no bare breasts on the vases, which would presumably have been on open display and thus subject to a more public, moralizing gaze.
A close examination of Homer’s “The Life Line” suggests the artist was going the opposite direction as he refined the image: heightening the sexuality for greater impact. Close analysis of the painting, including modern imaging techniques and comparison with related images and a preparatory drawing, show Homer making his female figure more dainty and playing with the arrangement of the man’s hands in a way that emphasizes her weakness and subtly calls attention to her breasts. By painting a shawl over the man’s face, Homer not only avoided his own artistic weakness, he made the man anonymous and mysterious, far from the generic boy scout physiognomy of most contemporary rescue images.
The exhibition loses focus with a sidetrack into the parallel tradition of painting peasants and fishing communities, which is only tangentially related to the Homer work. But a room devoted to the professionalization of lifesaving and coast guard work is surprisingly timely. After several deadly shipwrecks in the 1870s, including the wreck of the Atlantic in 1873 (with more than 500 lost), popular outrage led to government action, and the establishment of a professional network of coastal lifesaving. The results were impressive: The use of lifelines (fired from a cannon on shore), lifeboats and the presence of skilled lifesavers along the shoreline saved thousands of lives.
Lifesaving didn’t however come about without a political fight. A cartoon by Thomas Nast frames it in very contemporary terms: A grumpy Uncle Sam overlooks a beach littered with bodies and debris, grumbling that he must spend so much on lifesaving services (“. . . it is too bad to be obliged to waste so much money”). The deeper political implications of Homer’s painting, and many lesser works like it, are still felt today, as politicians debate the extent to which we are obliged to live in the Darwinian jungle.
Over the course of the 19th century, boats also became safer, and navigation more precise. But human fears have deep vestigial roots, and paradoxically as the danger diminished the fear grew more intense. And it lives on in films such as “Titanic,” and “The Perfect Storm,” and in the trailers for “Life of Pi.” But the appetite for the disaster image has shifted over the past century: It’s hard to imagine, for example, that images of bodies from the 9-11 attacks would be popular fare for artists today. Disaster imagery must today be either at a geopolitical remove (happening to other people safely remote from people like us) or so stylized as to be no more terrifying than an Aesop fable.
The exhibition ends with a room of Homer’s later sea paintings, made while the artist lived in Maine and as artistic taste tended to modernism. Ships and people are increasingly remote in these works, just a ghostly gray shadow in the distance, as in the 1904 “Summer Squall.” These later paintings engage with the sublime, a theme of maritime painting for centuries. What is the real extent of man’s power? Can he indeed take arms against a sea of troubles and end them? Or is the colossus of nature always triumphant in the end? A painting is essentially a container, holding in, for a moment, some aspect of life. Homer’s later work aims to stretch that container to its ultimate limits, moving away from the small dramas of people to the larger contest between life and death and oblivion.
Seen in that context, the earlier “The Life Line” has yet more resonance. The sexuality of the work becomes allegorical, a statement about making life in the midst of a nasty, hostile, meaningless world. A shipwreck painting transcends its own traditions by eliminating the shipwreck and focusing entirely on two people, joined together, suspended momentarily above doom.
is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 16. For more information, visit