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

Fig. 4. The Death of Virginia (La Mort de Virginie) by James Bertrand (1823-1887), 1869. Oil on canvas, 32 5/8 by 72 1/2 inches. Musée Bertrand, Châteauroux, France.  ©  musée d'Orsay / rmn.

Homer's interest in lifesaving grew during the eighteen months he spent in 1881 and 1882 in Cullercoats, an English fishing village on the North Sea. Cullercoats was an artists' colony, but it was also near the epicenter of the recent British volunteer life brigade movement; both the attraction of picturesque subjects and the activity of the new lifesaving stations may have drawn Homer to the site.6 The hard life of the fishing community, and the heroic men and women who regularly faced disaster at sea, inspired a darker and more monumental cast to Homer's work. The new life brigade watch house in Cullercoats, where anxious fisher folk gathered to watch the progress of a storm or rescue, became the centerpiece of many of his drawings and watercolors. In October 1881 Homer witnessed the wreck of a ship off the mouth of the river Tyne and recorded the launch of one of the state-of-the-art English lifeboats in a large watercolor,

The Wreck of the "Iron Crown" (Fig. 7). He probably witnessed the regular drills of the local brigade in Cullercoats, and upon his return to the United States he befriended

The members of the lifesaving station in AtlanticCity, where he observed practice with a breeches buoy in the summer of 1883. These sessions informed The Life Line, which may have taken shape in his imagination as an opportunity to bring the lifesaving subjects he had seen in England to an American context.7

Homer returned to the UnitedStates to an audience that had been primed with stories of the reform of the young American lifesaving service. Lengthy articles in magazines such as Harper's and Scribner's Monthly detailed the advances in technology-including the use of the breeches buoy-and lauded the courage and stamina of the brigade men, who were-unlike their English counterparts-paid professional "surf men."8 Because of its long coastline, which included many sparsely inhabited stretches, the United States was unique in the world in having a government-subsidized service, as well as a proactive one that patrolled the beaches in bad weather, looking for ships in trouble. This policy saved many lives and much cargo by intercepting distressed ships or warning them away from danger, and it earned the United States a reputation as the most efficient and progressive lifesaving service in the world. It also launched public awareness of a new American hero, the coast guardsman, whose character and exploits were illustrated in numerous publications after 1878.

This new hero, cousin to the famous English volunteer brigade man, was also the brother of a slightly older popular figure of rescue, the American fireman. Celebrated in Currier and Ives lithographs beginning in the 1850s, when urban fire companies began to shift from volunteer associations to paid professional brigades, the American fireman responded to the worst-and most common-peril of city life. From a tradition of rowdy ethnic fraternity, the fireman was transformed into a figure of strength, courage, resourcefulness, and selflessness. These same virtues were called into play for rescue at sea, and the surf man depicted in The Life Line illustrates these qualities as he struggles to carry his precious cargo to the beach. His modernity abides in his professional status, and his stalwart execution of duty; like the fireman, he is alone, doing his job, but working with modern equipment and a disciplined team. No lone knight, he is assisted by unseen brigade members on the beach, to the right, who are pulling the apparatus of the breeches buoy to the beach.

The woman, by contrast, is a more old-fashioned heroine. Like many romantic damsels in distress, she is fainting and passive. Although her left hand holds tightly to a rope and her ankles are primly crossed, she closes her eyes and falls backward, avoiding eye contact with the surf man and surrendering to his will. She is a version of Homer's American girl, and a type readily recognized by his audience: middle class, urban, but otherwise vaguely defined, she can easily be interpreted as the girl next door, a generic daughter or sister or sweetheart. Homer's audience could be expected to relate to this woman and imagine an identity for her; likewise, she easily becomes representative of all American womanhood, and by extension the immigrant wives and mothers who suffered shipboard danger in traveling to the new country. With skill, Homer suggests both a particular, contemporary narrative and a symbolic rescue of all that is most precious to the nation.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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