In our current “War on Terror,” it’s sometimes hard to imagine or appreciate the terrors of times gone by. For Americans of the 19th century, stories of shipwrecks struck deep into their souls. Many harbored fresh memories of a harrowing crossing to the New World from Europe. Tales of rescue efforts that were too little, too late, or both filled newspapers and raised public ire. In the response to this uproar, the U.S. Government legislated in 1878 the development of a network of coastal life-saving stations called the Live-Saving Service. Six years later, Winslow Homer painted The Life Line, a celebration of these rescuing heroes that made Homer famous almost overnight and that still captures viewers’ imaginations today. Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line”, which runs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through December 16, 2012, rescues the importance of this stirring picture not just as a great artistic achievement but also as a snapshot of a moment in time when heroes won their war on the terror of the seas.
Living along the coast of Maine, Homer knew full well the realities of the shipwreck not just in the newspapers, but also in faces of the families wondering if their men would come back safely from the sea. But Homer didn’t always see the dark side of ocean travel. As a section of the Shipwreck! show illustrates, Homer early on emphasized the sunny side of the sea voyage. Yachting Girl shows the stereotypical fresh-faced, American “girl next door” enjoying life on deck. In the 1880 watercolor Clear Sailing, boys watch the return of a fishing fleet to Gloucester Harbor. As Kathleen Foster, curator of the exhibition explained, the exhibit designers cleverly organized the space to put these happy images in a bright central space to mimic the still eye of a hurricane—with the dark, stormy sea waiting just outside.
The stormy section amounts to a rapid-fire history of maritime disaster in painting, starting with a 17th century shipwreck scene from the Flemish school by Bonaventura Peeters. The imagery of watery doom soon separates into disciples of either British artist J.M.W. Turner (represented by an engraving of one of his shipwreck scenes) or the French artist Claude-Joseph Vernet. Vernet’s 1772 The Shipwreck overshadows similar works by Edward Moran, Thomas Birch, and others by the sheer power of its dramatic detail, right down to nearly engulfed figures working their way from ship to shore along a knotted lifeline. Vernet’s panorama of Romantic Sturm und Drang serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Homer’s very different, cinematic close-up of the rescue.
Before diving into the rescue itself, however, the exhibition pauses to consider the human cost of the shipwreck back on land. The cheerful boys of Clear Sailing now console one another with an understated, but understanding hand on the shoulder as the reality of a lost father hits home. Homer’s Dutch contemporary Jozef Israëls’ The Last Breath shows a family grieving the loss of the patriarch. In Forebodings, an 1881 watercolor by Homer, we can almost see the growing despair of women looking across the angry sea in vain. Whereas shipwrecks were vivid but distant episodes for most people, these fishermen and their families lived under the terror of shipwrecks every day.
What turned the tide regarding rescue efforts was the 1873 shipwreck of the RMS Atlantic, the most titanic ship disaster pre-Titanic. Of the 900 people aboard, only 371 survived the icy waters off the coast of Nova Scotia. Even more tragically, only 1 child of the 189 aboard and none of the 156 women survived. Unable to either swim or pull themselves along slick ropes to shore, the women and children perished. For days, bodies of the victims swept onto the beaches. Newspapers around the world published images depicting the scene. Currier and Ives soon published a dramatic lithograph titled The Wreck of the Atlantic. Although Homer himself never saw the aftermath of the Atlantic, he also graphically depicted the disaster, but chose a close up of a fisherman finding a beautiful, drowned woman rather than the epic disaster scene of Currier and Ives’ treatment. Closer to American shores, the 1877 shipwreck of the USS Huron that took the lives of 98 seamen inspired political cartoonist Thomas Nast to draw Death on Economy, in which Uncle Sam surveys the dead bodies washing ashore and muses “I suppose I must spend a little on life-saving service, life-boat stations, life-boats, surf-boats, etc.; but it is too bad to be obliged to waste so much money.” A year after the Huron disaster, the U.S. Government legislated the federally funded, centrally organized Live-Saving Service into existence. A video playing in the gallery of modern-day coastal first responders using the same breeches buoy device depicted in Homer’s The Life Line connects past and present heroism. (The PMA further cements this connection by offering free opening week admission to first responders and their families.)
With all this public attention on first responders and Homer’s clear admiration of these heroic men, the anonymity of the man in The Life Line (shown above) seems odd. By using infrared and x-ray visualizing tools, however, the curators and conservators reached beneath the surface of Homer’s painting to dredge up some of his sunken secrets. Beneath the red cloth blown across the head of the rescuer, the face of the man originally painted there hides. A patch of slightly differently colored seascape covers where the man’s hand once rested on the woman’s shoulder. Where once the lifeline itself stretched taught across the canvas, the rope now sags with the strain and weight Homer wants the viewer the feel. Just as this cinematic close-up emphasized the rescue itself over past images telling a wider story, every change Homer made drew the focus onto the woman being rescued—right down to the soaked dress clinging to her body like a second skin and the torn skirt scandalously flashing the flesh beneath. Sex, then as now, sold—quickly. A renowned collector snatched up the painting on the first night it was shown, critics praised Homer’s heroic scene, and Homer’s own family began saving his letters for posterity, knowing that he was now a famous artist.
A final gallery shows Homer’s post-Life Line paintings of the sea and its watchmen. 1896’s The Wreck serves as a sequel to The Life Line showing everything left out of the first painting—the horses dragging lifeboats to the water, the clumps of men pulling the ropes connecting the ship to the shore, the teamwork behind the rugged individual savior. Whereas man looms large, if mysterious, in The Life Line, in these late works Homer’s humans shrink before the immensity of the sea itself. If ships appear, they’re derelicts being searched for salvage. After the grand show of The Life Line, these late works offer only an anticlimax looking for human rather than natural power.
But the truest rescue of Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line”, aside from salvaging of the secrets submerged beneath Homer’s heroic surface, is the recovery of what people can do united against terror—here, the terror of the seas embodied in shipwreck. A public outcry led to direct, concerted government effort to solve a problem. Homer’s The Life Line is your tax dollars at work, circa 1884. In an election year in which the role and size of government looms large, Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” reminds us that heroes need a little help, too.
[Many thanks to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the image above, an invitation to the press release for, and press materials related to Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line”, which runs through December 16, 2012.]