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.
Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and ‘The Life Line’
is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 16. For more information, visit