Winslow Homer's The Life Line: A Narrative of gender and modernity

Study for "The Life Line" by Homer, c. 1883. Inscribed "The Life Line" and indecipherable text at lower left. Charcoal and white chalk on cream wove paper, 17 11/16 by 11 inches. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, gift of Charles Savage Homer Jr.

Young, fair, dainty, and curvaceous, Homer's typical pretty girl is often seen outdoors, but rarely in distress until The Life Line. In a remarkable exception, The Wreck of the "Atlantic": Cast Up by the Sea, published as a wood engraving in Harper's Weekly in April 1873 (Fig. 5), Homer represented the dreadful aftermath of a shipwreck that month, when 562 people-out of a total of 952 passengers and crew-were drowned en route to New York. The scale of this maritime tragedy, which would not be surpassed until the disaster of the Titanic in 1912, was enlarged by the shocking loss of every one of the 295 women on board and all but one of the children. Without life jackets, adequate life boats, or any equipment for carrying passengers to shore, all the weakest passengers drowned. Many women were found, like the figure in The Wreck of the Atlantic, frozen in postures taken while clinging to the rigging, awaiting a rescue that never came.

Far from the scene of the disaster, Homer compiled eyewitness accounts and familiar visual sources to create an image that contemplates what Edgar Allan Poe famously declared in 1846 to be "unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world"-the death of a beautiful woman.2 Confronting the sad image of a dead maiden washed up on the beach, Homer's audience would have been reminded of the most famous such shipwreck story in romantic literature, Paul et Virginie, written by Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in 1789 and instantly translated into English-a bestseller throughout the nineteenth century. Lost in a shipwreck just as she is returning home to join her childhood sweetheart, the innocent Virginia is discovered drowned on the beach in an angelic pose that inspired numerous paintings and book illustrations as well as a tidal wave of ceramics, textile, and wallpaper designs. As late as 1869, just four years before The Wreck of the "Atlantic," the French painter James Bertrand made a success at the Paris salon with Virginia Drowned, which, like Homer's image, shows a lovely figure almost undisturbed by the trauma of death (Fig. 4).3 The poignancy, as well as the sensuousness of these images, with their seminude or soaked heroines, had an appeal that, in the spirit of the romantic period, mixed the morbid, the sentimental, and the erotic.

Homer, like every literate person of this period, would have been familiar with the story of Paul and Virginia, and he knew other artistic precedents that shared this same mix of emotions, such as Edward Augustus Brackett's famed marble sculpture, Drowned Mother and Child (Worcester Art Museum) of 1848-1851, for many decades on view at the Boston Athenaeum. Daniel Huntington's 1846 illustration of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's well-known poem "The Wreck of the Hesperus" also tapped into the nineteenth century's recurring nightmare of innocent women and shipwreck.4 In addition to the ghost of Virginia, Homer may have intentionally invoked the memory of Longfellow's heroine, who was discovered drowned on the beach after her father arrogantly refused to turn his ship back to harbor in the face of a hurricane. Like the victims of the Atlantic, who were put at risk by an incompetent captain and greedy shipowners, the death of the captain's daughter illustrated the failure of men; Longfellow intended his poem as a warning to the self-centered individualism of American culture, which was disregarding its fairest, most devout and virtuous citizens, thereby calling into question traditional American claims to national moral superiority. A decade later, when Homer composed The Life Line, he summoned up the dread in the collective memory of most Americans, conjuring the threat of yet another woman drowned-but with the brave arrival of an American hero to put "women and children first."5 Homer's resolve to show a hero on the scene reflects the transformation of the American lifesaving service in the years immediately preceding his painting. Longfellow's call to American men for a more responsible society echoed again in the aftermath of the wreck of the Atlantic, which drew headlines from coast to coast. Homer's image of grief and outrage in 1873 was accompanied by editorials calling for improved safety standards on board the immigrant steamers, and a bolstering of the fledgling, poorly funded American lifesaving service. In the winter of 1877-1878, fresh marine tragedies that could have been mitigated by rescue operations finally inspired federal appropriations that injected new life into the coastal defenses. Beginning in 1878, brigade houses were built from Maine to Florida, and new technology was imported from England and improved by American tinkering. The breeches buoy-a cork life ring with a set of breeches attached to make a seat that could carry people from ship to shore-rapidly became an important tool in the arsenal of lifesaving. Using a small cannon, a brigade would fire a rope out to a ship in distress, establishing a life line that could carry passengers to safety on the breeches buoy.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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