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

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2012 |

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).

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.

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.

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.

1 This essay is based on Kathleen A. Foster, Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” (Philadelphia Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2012), which contains an analysis of the reception of the painting in 1884, as well as additional commentary and bibliography on its sources. 2 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition,” Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art, no. 244 (April 1846), p. 165. 3 For Bertrand’s painting and its similarity to Homer’s Cast Up by the Sea, see Roger Stein, “Picture and Text: The Literary World of Winslow Homer,” in Winslow Homer: A Symposium, ed. Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., Studies in the History of Art, no. 26 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1990), pp. 49-50. 4 See ibid., pp. 49-50. 5 The phrase “women and children first” was coined following a particularly disastrous shipwreck in 1852; see B. R. Burg, “Women and Children First: Popular Mythology and Disaster at Sea,” Journal of American Culture, vol. 20, no. 4 (Winter 1997), pp. 1-7. On the cultural commentary vested in “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” see Robin Miskolcze, Women and Children First: Nineteenth-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2007), pp. 61-63. 6 On Homer and his reasons for visiting Cullercoats, see William H. Gerdts, “Winslow Homer in Cullercoats,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, vol. 36, no. 2 (Spring 1977), pp. 18-35; Abigail Booth Gerdts, “The Winslow Homer Connection,” in Laura Newton, Cullercoats: A North- East Colony of Artists (Sansom and Co., Bristol, in association with the Laing A r t Ga l l e r y, Ne wc a s t l e Up o n Ty n e , 2 0 0 3) , p p . 67-74 . 7 William Howe Downes, The Life and Works of Winslow Homer (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1911), p. 120. 8 Numerous articles in periodicals such as Harper’s and Scribner’s from the period 1878-1886 are surveyed in Foster, Shipwreck! 9 E. R. “The National Academy of Design: Fifty-Ninth Annual Exhibition,” The American, April 12, 1884, pp. 8-9.