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

Fig. 2. Clear Sailing by Homer, c. 1880. Signed "Homer" at lower right. Transparent and opaque watercolor and graphite with scraping on heavy wove paper, 7 5/8 by 11 1/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. George Woodward.

The extreme contrast of gender roles in the painting, carried out in the comparison of her dainty shoes and his large boots, and her limp posture set against his dynamic pose, illustrates Homer's skill in embedding a mythic fairy-tale rescue within a modern adventure story. Such contrasts of men (muscular and dark) and women (soft and fair) have been part of European painting for centuries, although the romantic era elevated the knight-in-shining-armor legend to new extremes, perhaps to confirm a  conservative vision of roles for men and women at a time of tremendous change. Winslow Homer, a chivalrous nineteenth-century gentleman, believed in protecting the "weaker sex," notwithstanding the rising demands during his lifetime for equality in education, employment, and legal status for women. Against this pressure, The Life Line counsels women to put their welfare in the hands of men. At the same time, the surf man demonstrates the self-sacrificing effort expected in defense of American families. Although Homer's male audience in 1884 would have been largely business and professional men, "desk workers" removed from the working class of a surf man and probably not capable of strenuous feats, they surely understood the message of manly responsibility contained in Homer's painting.

Changes in the composition, evident from a study of Homer's preparatory drawing (Fig. 6) and in X-radiographic examination of the canvas, track the artist's careful calculation of this story. The surf man's face, once visible in both drawing and painting, was covered at the last minute by the woman's red shawl, which obscures his identity and also complicates his struggle. Viewers in 1884 knew of this change and approved of Homer's choice, which they understood as an artistic strategy to focus attention on the woman. For the same reasons, the beefy hand of the surf man on the woman's shoulder disappeared; Homer scraped it out to gain a cleaner contour for her head and arm, as well as a less intrusive rescuer. The perfect gentleman, he is ultimately touching her very little. The stalwart surf man becomes an anonymous, masked, mysterious-and slightly monstrous-noble hero. In him we recognize Zorro, Spiderman, the Lone Ranger, and the modern first responder. He retreats, pressing forward the soaked body of the woman, whose dress clings to her curves "as if the figure were nude," as one newspaper noted.9 Contemporary viewers reveled in the sensuousness of this clinging clothing and the flash of pink skin revealed above her knees. But the erotic charge, electrifying to the suggestible culture of the 1880s, was managed by the larger narrative of honorable rescue under extreme duress, made particular and patriotic with the reassuring vision of the new American coast guard taking on the terrors of the storm.

These modern themes-the contemporary figure types, the exciting new machinery, and the complex social narrative-were accompanied by an artistic strategy that was equally progressive. The composition of crossed diagonals and broad planes of color behind a dark, complex silhouette may show the lessons Homer learned from Japanese prints; the daring vantage point, suspended in space, suggests the effect of a new telephoto lens. Both formal strategies add a fresh, contemporary dynamic to the design, although the realism of Homer's technique suppressed that abstract tendency in favor of an illusionism that viewers in 1884 found intoxicatingly natural. This realism supported the storytelling genius of the picture, at once old-fashioned and exhilaratingly modern. Although narrative painting would fade from popularity in Homer's work and in American art in general as the century drew to an end, Homer's talent in this genre is revealed in the surprising cropping of the subject, which leaves much of the event unseen. This is an unconventional strategy, mixing messages of danger, confusion, and mystery. The apparatus of the breeches buoy is largely hidden by the figures or outside of the composition; both the ship in distress and the team on the beach are only suggested; and the figures are provocatively difficult to sort out. Presenting a puzzle to his audience with a thrilling and unresolved outcome, Homer makes his viewers work to discover the story, and explore the sexy tangle of bodies at the center of the painting.

Homer pursued the narrative of The Life Line for another fifteen years, visualizing the many different moments of the shipwreck scenario. The rescue by lifeboat, first seen in The Wreck of the "Iron Crown," took place in mid-ocean in the unfinished The Signal of Distress (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), composed and reworked between 1890 and 1894. Two years later, The Wreck (Fig. 8) told the other side of a breeches buoy rescue: now the rope and the victims are unseen, and the focus is on the drama on the beach as the brigade assembles. Finally, in 1899, in the much darker and more brutal The Gulf Stream (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Homer confronted the last viewpoint, of the passenger who will not be saved.

This gradual turn to bleaker narratives followed the curve of Homer's biography, as he grew more solitary and pessimistic at the end of his life. For the most part, his paintings turned away from human subjects after 1890, or the figures grew smaller, as in Winter Coast (Fig. 9). Insignificant in the landscape, the hunter in Winter Coast is an ephemeral witness to the long story of the battle of the sea and the shore. Powerful in their broad diagonals and rough planes of paint, Homer's late marines carry the naturalism of his mature work into the abstract realms of the twentieth century. These paintings also find another, more existential modern heroism, which recognizes the power of nature and the lonely, persevering place of humans in the universe.

Kathleen A. Foster is the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She is curator of the exhibition and author of the catalogue for Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and "The Life Line," on view at the museu from September 22 to December 16.

[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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