Bringing a suspenseful story of danger and heroic rescue to an audience that never seems to tire of courageous knights and fainting maidens, Winslow Homer's The Life Line (Fig.1) has been popular since the day it was completed in 1884. Homer's themes of human frailty, bravery, and romance in the context of the overwhelming power of nature remain evergreen after more than a century, even though hints of a struggling sailing ship at the left, a fragmented and obscured view of a nineteenth-century breeches buoy and life line, and the corseted figure of the woman all make this an old-fashioned narrative to twenty-first-century viewers. But to Winslow Homer and his contemporaries, this image was thrillingly up-to-date in subject, character types, and artistic handling. The context of the painting, explored in the current exhibition Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and "The Life Line," at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, restores the startling modernity that made this picture the star of the National Academy of Design's exhibition in New York in 1884, and helps explain its enduring appeal.1
Fig. 1. The Life Line by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), 1884. Signed and dated "Winslow Homer 1884" at lower right. Oil on canvas, 28 5/8 by 44 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, George W. Elkins Collection.
The story of the sea-its power and its threat to human life-was terrifyingly familiar to Homer's audience, and this fear was central to the success of his painting. Every immigrant or visitor to the United States had to cross the ocean, every merchant and consumer depended on overseas shipping, and countless trades-fishing, shipbuilding, and all the services for mariners and travelers-were at the mercy of maritime weather. To the nineteenth century, ocean travel was an ordeal to be dreaded, and stories of storm, shipwreck, and drowning would have haunted every American.
Homer steered away from these dark marine subjects at first, preferring sunnier seaside vignettes (see Fig. 2), but his figures were determinedly based on observation. Versions of the new American girl appeared repeatedly throughout his work of the1860s and 1870s, playing croquet, yachting, or walking on the beach, alternately appearing as a stylish pin-up, a wholesome country maiden, a play shepherdess in Bo-Peep costume, or a factory girl (see Fig. 3).