Published: September 4, 2012
“Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and ‘The Life Line'” will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art September 22⁄ecember 16.
While living in a tiny fishing village in England in 1881-82, the American artist Winslow Homer was profoundly moved by the sight of a shipwreck that would focus his imagination on the power and peril of the sea. His art took on a new seriousness and drama, demonstrated in a major painting made soon after his return to the United States: “The Life Line,” 1884, one of his greatest popular and critical successes.
A masterpiece owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art for almost 90 years, “The Life Line” is the centerpiece of this exhibition about the making and meaning of an iconic American image of rescue at sea. Celebrating modern heroism and the thrill of unexpected intimacy between strangers thrown together by disaster, the exhibition contains works by Homer complemented by a range of precedents in the shipwreck and rescue genre, including paintings, watercolors, etchings, engravings, sketches and ceramics ranging in date from the mid-Seventeenth to the early Twentieth Centuries.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art will be the only venue for this exhibition, which includes fragile and rarely seen watercolors, prints and drawings.
The exhibition explores the related themes of the exhilaration of ocean travel, disaster on the high seas and romantic rescue, while examining the creative contributions of one of this country’s greatest artists to the rich tradition of marine painting. The opening gallery introduces the importance of ocean travel to the Eastern seaboard of the United States and its significance to Boston-born Homer, and includes the watercolor “Clear Sailing” (circa 1880; Philadelphia Museum of Art). Typical of Homer’s lighthearted work from this period, the painting shows children watching white-sailed boats on a calm and sun-drenched harbor.
The next section takes on a darker tone, surveying the theme of shipwreck during the first great age of marine painting from the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries. The aftermath of a shipwreck for those waiting onshore follows, with works based on Homer’s experience in the English village of Cullercoats, on the North Sea in 1881‸2, where he witnessed the wreck of the Iron Crown .
Other sections look at the theme of the romantic rescue of the helpless damsel, while “Heroes of the Coastline: The Rise of the Unites States Life Saving Service” examines the real life historical context of these rescue scenes. “Heroes of the Coastline” also tells the story of the spectacularly successful reform of the shoddy American coastal defenses, beginning with the establishment of the United States Life Saving Service in 1871, followed by the integration of new technology and the employment of trained personnel.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org .
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