I’m sorry and embarrassed that I waited so long to see the fascinating exhibition, Shipwreck: Winslow Homer and “The Life Line” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), but fortunately it has been held over until Jan. 1, 2013. It offers much more than a look at a single theme by a single painter, albeit the greatest of his American contemporaries. Firstly, the exhibition reminds us of the pervasive influence of the sea in 19th-century, American life. It was considerably more than a means of inter-continental travel. The sea was the underpinning of much of the economy, as is reflected in literature of the period by writers such as Hawthorne and Melville. And then, as now, the sea was untamable. Ships will always be subject to the violence of the weather, and accidents at sea were a regular feature of 19th-century news.
Secondly, the exhibition documents the variety of means by which events were visually reported and commemorated in the period: through illustrations in newspapers, magazines and books (Homer began his career producing wood engravings for newspapers), through paintings and their copies via lithography, engraving and etching, and as images on decorative ceramics. Painters also made original etchings.
The third subject of the exhibition is Homer’s development of The Lifeline and its place within his marine paintings. We are shown a drawing (below), and a video which reveals (via radiography and infrared study) changes Homer made in the composition, as well as two etchings Homer made after the painting, one printed (unusually) in a deep, marine blue.
Some of the etchings in the exhibition have marginal images – a sure indication that they were made for an established audience of print collectors. This etching revival was only part of a broader 19th-century interest in seventeenth-century Dutch art (in England, France, and the U.S.), which, after all, was the first European art made on speculation and for a middle-class audience.
The Netherlands was also a seafaring economy, and the first gallery, devoted to paintings of shipwrecks, begins there with Bonaventure Peeters’ Shipwreck on a Rocky Coast (ca. 1640, above). It is an imagined view of indigenous Brazilians observing a ship going down. The next step in the tradition is exemplified by Claude-Joseph Vernet’s Shipwreck (1772,below). Vernet was the Steven Spielberg of marine painting, who maximized the subject’s dramatic potential for terror. His ships founder on stormy nights, illuminated by flashes of lightening. The gallery includes paintings by Turner and George Moreland, showing 19th-century British versions of the theme, and by the American painters Thomas Birch, William Trost Richards and Edward Moran.
The second gallery is devoted to Homer’s imagery of the sea, the development of trained life-guarding crews, and the interest in images of men rescuing damsels in distress. It includes the grand composition of The Gale (Worcester Art Museum), which was unpopular when first exhibited, so Homer later changed and simplified it. He then painted the exhibition’s centerpiece, The Lifeline (1883, PMA, above), which was the star of the National Academy of Design’s 1884 annual exhibition, and was purchased immediately. The tangle of forms in the painting’s center represents the hero of the event, tethered to a lifeline, his face hidden by the red scarf of the unconscious woman he has just plucked from the sea. The close embrace by a stranger would have been erotically suggestive to contemporary viewers, and Homer ups the sexual ante by revealing not only the damsel’s stockings and a bit of white undergarment, but also a sliver of her thighs above her garters.
The third gallery covers Homer’s marine subjects after The Lifeline, and includes some of his mature watercolors, which have remained the pinnacle of achievement in the medium, studied by watercolorists ever since. Concerning a major painting in the PMA’s collection, this exhibition is an investment that will repay the time spent in it, since one of the museum’s important paintings will forever be seen in a much richer context. In fact, more than half of the exhibition is drawn from the museum’s collection, something that the exhibition curator, Kathleen Foster, said she had not expected when she began research on the painting. The exhibition is a testament to the depth and breadth of the PMA’s holdings, and the sort of serious investigation, of interest to a broad public, that every museum hopes to present. Many congratulations to the PMA for its success!