The Life Line by Winslow Homer

The Life Line by Winslow Homer (1884)

When I was flicking through my ever increasing number of art books and catalogues I came across a painting which immediately immersed me in a wave of nostalgia and reminded me of a time almost forty years ago.  I will tell you why at the end of this blog.  My featured artist today is one of the best loved American landscape and marine painter of the nineteenth century.  His name is Winslow Homer.

Winslow was born in Boston Massachusetts in 1836.  His mother, Henrietta Homer (née Benson) was a talented watercolour artist and acted as Winslow first art teacher. Both she and his father Charles Savage Homer hailed from New England.  Winslow had two brothers, one, two years older, Charles Savage Junior, and one, five years younger, Arthur.   He was brought up in an educated middle-class home by his parents in Cambridge Massachusetts.  By all accounts he led a very happy childhood walking in the countryside, fishing and playing with his brothers and his many cousins.  His father was quite a volatile man who changed jobs many times necessitating the uprooting of his family home on each occasion.  Although never a successful business man Winslow’s father, ever the optimist, always believed that things would soon come good and his fortune would be made.  It is therefore no surprise that when Winslow was just thirteen years of age his father gave up the family hardware business, left the family and joined the California Gold Rush.  Needless to say, all his dreams came to nought and after further spells in England and France in his futile attempt to gain some financial support for his money-making ideas he returned home to his family where he had to financially rely on his wife and family.

Winslow Homer graduated from high school and his father arranged for him to become an apprentice to J.H.Bufford a leading Boston commercial lithographic company.   Lithography was a very lucrative business at the time and was in great demand.   Winslow Homer not only learnt to draw but he developed a good business sense.  Although Winslow learnt all about lithography he found the work monotonous and wanted to concentrate on his real love – painting.  It could well have been his mother’s encouragement that finally turned him from being a journeyman illustrator to becoming “his own man” and so in 1857, on his twenty-first birthday, he left Buffords after being with them for two years. One thing his apprenticeship had taught him was that he wanted to be his own boss.  In Elizabeth Johns 2002 biography on Winslow Homer entitled, Winslow Homer, The Nature of Observation she quotes Homer’s comments regarding his days as an apprentice:

“…it was too fresh in my recollection to let me care to bind myself again.  From the time that I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master and never shall have any…”

Homer turned down the offer of employment from the magazine Harper’s Weekly but did work for them for a number of years on a freelance basis whilst continuing his career as a freelance illustrator.     He exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866, and in 1867, and at the age of forty-one,  he embarked on a trip to Paris where he lived for a year and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle.  Whilst in the French capital he continued to supply Harper’s Weekly with scenes depicting Parisian life.  Despite the change in style of French art, Winslow Homer remained faithful to his love of paintings of peasant life and was a great admirer of Millet and his works of art.

Throughout the 1870s, Homer continued painting mostly rural or idyllic scenes of farm life, children playing, and young adults courting.   In 1875, Homer gave up working as a commercial illustrator and declared that he would continue to exist solely on the money he made from his paintings.   Homer started painting regularly with watercolours in 1873 whilst staying in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  From the beginning, his technique was natural, fluid and confident, demonstrating his innate talent for a difficult medium.    In 1877, Homer exhibited for the first time at the Boston Art Club with the oil painting, An Afternoon Sun, and from that first offering until 1909, the year before he died, he exhibited at the Boston Art Club on a regular basis.

Homer became a member of The Tile Club, which was a group of thirty-one notable New York painters, sculptors and architects who met between 1877 and 1887. The group was inspired by William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement and they created hand-painted ceramic tiles and promoted the decorative arts.  This group of artists and writers met frequently to exchange ideas and organize outings for painting, as well as foster the creation of decorative tiles. For a short time, Winslow Homer designed tiles for fireplaces.

Winslow Homer travelled to England in 1881 and settled in Cullercoats a Tyneside coastal village on the northeast coast.  Whilst there, he completed many paintings depicting the lives of working men and women.  His works often depicted the ferocity and relentless power of the sea and the men and women who braved those unforgiving elements of nature.  It was whilst staying at Cullercoats that on October 21st 1881 he witnessed the sinking off Tynemouth of the vessel, Iron Crown,  and the daring rescue of its crew by the local life saving society and it is from that memory, which is captured in Winslow’s painting, The Life Line.  The wreck of the Iron Crown at Cullercoats involved the volunteer Life Brigade who managed to rescue four of the crew using a rocket and breeches buoy. The local artist George Edward Horton, a member of the Bewick Club and the Cullercoats Colony of artists later recalled his first encounter with Wilmslow Homer:

“…As I stood watching the rescue operations a little cab turned up with an old Cullercoats fisherman on the dicky: out stepped a dapper medium sized man with a watercolour sketching block and sat down on the ways. He made a powerful drawing with some watercolour and some pastel….”

During the night of the disaster, Winslow Homer made sketches as he stood on the beach.  Immediately following the incident he painted an austere and dramatic canvas in oils depicting sailors huddled against the sea wall as they waited to find out the fate of their companions who were still in the raging seas.  Early during the rescue of the Iron Crown the life savers used a contraption known as a breeches-buoy to reach the stricken sailors.  Two years later in 1883,  when Homer was back in America at Atlantic City on the New Jersey coast, he went to talk to the local life-saving crews and asked them about this breeches-buoy device and watched a demonstration of the use of it for rescue from the sea.  With what he had seen with his own eyes two years earlier and what he had subsequently learnt when he got back home, he painted his large, impressive, and immediately popular painting The Life Line in 1884, which was just one of several paintings he completed at this time on the rescue theme.

The Life Line does not depict a specific rescue but it was intended as a general representation of the distress and heroism that were inexorable aspects of life by and on the high seas.  This work of art by Winslow Homer is all about the age-old themes of peril at sea and the power of nature, but at the same time honours modern heroism and yet at the same time encompasses the thrill of unexpected intimacy between strangers, in this case, the male rescuer and the female who is being saved, and who are being thrown together by the catastrophe.

Look carefully at the painting and what often strikes the viewer on their initial perusal of the scene is the fact that the face of the male rescuer is obliterated by the lady’s red scarf.  How strange is that?  Homer did this as he believed nothing should distract the viewer from the whole image – the actual rescue.  It was Homer’s belief that the intensity of the painting would be increased if we just focused our attention on the physical strength and brute force of the rescuer as he holds on tightly to the woman inching his way back to the shore.  The two dangle in the breeches-buoy in the trough between mountainous waves.  The woman being rescued lies unconsciously in his grasp.  Her head is thrown back.  Her arms lie limply by her side.  Her clothes have been drenched and torn by the ferocity of the sea.  She lies there in the man’s arms having been rescued from the ship, which we just catch a glimpse of with its tattered sails in the top left of the painting.

This is truly a terrifying depiction of a rescue at sea.  When Winslow Homer’s The Life Line was first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1884 it became an instant sensation.   Some critics, at the time of the painting being exhibited, commented on its powerful sensuality.  For them the depiction of the man and the woman in the painting, had it not been part of a life and death situation, may well have been lovers locked in an intimate embrace.  The sensuousness and sexuality of the image exhibits itself in the wet clothes clinging to the woman’s flesh with their drenched bodies clutched tightly together.  Some were shocked by Homer’s exposing of the woman’s bare knees!!!  Homer’s composition propels us into the midst of the action with colossal waves rolling past, drenching the semiconscious woman and her anonymous saviour. Homer’s painting, The Life Line was immediately recognized by critics as a major contribution to American art, portraying a heroic, contemporary subject with both painterly virtuosity and detailed observation.

This masterpiece by Winslow Homer can be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will feature in their upcoming exhibition entitled Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” which runs from September 22nd to December 16th 2012.

Finally I have to tell you why this painting brought on a wave of nostalgia for a time forty years earlier.  It was in the early 70’s that I sat the first of my nautical exams and at the oral part of it I was asked by the examiner to describe how, if I was on a sinking ship, would I rig a breeches-buoy.  Thankfully I never had to put the theory into practice!

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

One thought on “The Life Line by Winslow Homer”

  1. I love Winslow Homer.
    His pictures could be simple illustrations of an event, like on the cover of an old magazine, but he manages to turn them into something else.

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