Winslow Homer: Struggling with the Elements of Nature

Article excerpt

In The Life Line, Homer depicts the rescue of a woman from a shipwreck during a violent storm. Seemingly unconscious, she lies across a life preserver. At the same time, she grasps the rope above with her left hand suggesting a conscious effort to support herself.

Sitting in a sling seat, the male rescuer encircles the woman's body with his arms. The woman's red scarf obscures the man's face.

The sea erupts in tumultuous waves all around the figures. The rocks in the distance suggest the potential dangers of the tall and fast-moving waves. On the cliffs in the upper right, people, painted as mere shadows, observe and perhaps aid in the rescue.

The Artist as Observer of the Power of Nature

Homer was primarily a painter of the American outdoors. In his paintings, we see hunters in the Adirondacks, men and women at leisure, children at school and play, African Americans in rural Virginia and fishermen on the coast of Maine.

Homer was born in 1836 and began his career as an apprentice in a print shop. During his early years as an artist, he produced illustrations for magazines, including scenes of the Civil War (which he experienced first hand). But he is especially known for his oil paintings and watercolors.

In the early 1880s, Homer moved to Prout's Neck, Maine, and made it his home for the rest of his life. There he observed and painted the powerful ocean set against the rugged coastline and the daily struggles of the local men and women with the elements of nature.

Homer said little about his work and had no students. Yet, even in his own time, he was considered one of America's greatest painters. He died in 1910.

The Context: Created During a Time of Many New Inventions

During a visit to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the summer of 1883, Homer witnessed the use of a new life-saving device (called a "breeches buoy") designed to save people from shipwrecks. To work the device, a rescue team would shoot a rope from the shore to the wrecked ship. After the rope was secured to the ship and pulled taut, a pulley with a life preserver and seat was attached. Sitting in the seat, a rescuer would be hoisted to the ship. There he would load one survivor onto the life preserver, and together they would be pulled back to shore.

Homer made several sketches of the breeches buoy while in Atlantic City and featured it in this painting. As he continued to work on The Life Line later, he is said to have drenched his models with water to simulate the effects of the storm.

Themes to Consider

The Life Line demonstrates the destructive power of nature. Powerful storms have wreaked havoc on coastal communities for centuries. Here a storm has destroyed a ship and threatened the lives of the people aboard. The two central figures have no control over the weather or the fate of the ship. With the high waves crashing against the rocks and underneath them, the storm continues to threaten their lives as they hang just above the water.

While the forces of nature seem overwhelming, The Life Line demonstrates the human ability to cope with them. For example, the invention of the breeches buoy facilitated marine rescues. But, on an even more basic level, Homer shows how through strength, courage and cooperation men and women can overcome these natural dangers. Working in unison they can save a life. However, Homer leaves us unsure of the outcome of the rescue effort. The waves could still force the figures to lose their tenuous grips on each other and on the life line.


Beneduce, Ann Keay. A Weekend with Winslow Homer. NY: Rizzoli.

Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai. Winslow Homer. NY: Abrams, 1990.

Jennings, Kate. Winslow Homer. NY: Crescent Books, 1990.

Questions about Themes and Meanings

The Scene

The Life Line shows the rescue of a woman during a violent storm. …