Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line
Sept. 22 - Dec. 16, 2012
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Prints of American painter Winslow Homer's seascapes, children at rest and play, and hunting scenes are almost as frequent fixtures on the walls of bedrooms and college dorms as are Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World.
But just as there are more serious themes (such as suicide) embedded in Robert Frost's seemingly innocuous and tranquil poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (1922), for example, there is more at play in Homer's deceptively calming watercolor and oil works.
As the exhibit Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line, currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, suggests, the artist's faith may surface in some of the maritime metaphors in his work, particularly the notion of being "saved."
"Although Homer was notoriously private about his personal life, his letters reveal a hybrid of Protestant faith and secular rationalism shared in this era by New Englanders of his class and education," noted Kristina Garcia Wade, a press officer at the Philadelphia Museum, in an email. "In addition, there was a popular correlation between being 'saved' from shipwreck and being 'saved' spiritually."
Writing in the exhibition catalog, Kathleen Foster, the exhibition curator, notes religious undertones that would have been present in seascapes, such as Homer's The Life Line.
"Viewers might have been titillated by the romantic encounter, but the larger, nobler message of the painting was clear and deeply stirring," writes Foster, the senior curator of American art and director of the Philadelphia Museum's Center for American Art. "As a newspaper critic noted, the 'real subject of the picture' was the irresistible force of the ocean and the 'comparative helplessness of human strength amid such titanic stresses and strains.'"
From the sailors casting Jonah into the water to appease the tumultuous sea to the Egyptian army drowned in the Sea of Reeds (or Red Sea), there is a long tradition of issues of faith colliding with the sea. Pagan river gods often surface even in Jewish and Christian artworks, as do references to Poseidon, the sea god.
In Life Line, Homer (1836-1920) "would have embraced the metaphor of Christian salvation embedded in the title and the content of his painting," Foster writes. Homer and his American contemporaries were sure to be familiar with the notion of the "voyage of life" -- and its references to storms and shipwrecks as metaphors for human struggles, she adds, noting that the 1888 hymn, "Throw Out the Lifeline" (written by a New England mariner-turned-preacher) would also have been known to Homer.
"Weak and at the mercy of the elements, an innocent woman finds a mysterious savior to carry her across a valley of death and deliver her to safety," Foster writes. "At the same time, Homer's two figures can be seen as a kind of Adam and Eve representing all humanity, suspended in a dangerous world, struggling but tenacious and united."
The Adam and Eve interpretation may be a bit of a stretch (after all, the ship itself and the small figures observing from the top right of the painting suggest other people), although the pose may evoke elements of a pieta. Verses such as Song of Solomon 8:7, which reference love in terms of drowning, may also be at play.
Homer himself was "not an openly religious person," but his letters reveal a "hybrid of Protestant faith and secular rationalism shared in this era by New Englanders of his class and education," writes Foster. But, she adds, Life Line articulates a human-focused approach to salvation. The savior in the painting summons courage and uses man-made technology and knowledge how to use those tools to save the drowning victim.
As Homer's two figures hang above the waves, then, they also hang between two worldviews: a "romantically charged melodrama of chivalric, Christian rescue" and the "existential story of human heroism in an indifferent universe," Foster writes.
But even as Homer seemed to have grappled with important, sweeping religious questions in his work, he also clearly intended viewers to get lost in the details. Although the eye is immediately drawn to the drama of the two suspended figures, it eventually comes to settle on the drops affixed to the ropes -- a painstakingly and lovingly rendered detail.