Winslow Homer: Struggling with the Elements of Nature
Losos, Carol M., School Arts
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.
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Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai. Winslow Homer. NY: Abrams, 1990.
Jennings, Kate. Winslow Homer. NY: Crescent Books, 1990.
Questions about Themes and Meanings
The Life Line shows the rescue of a woman during a violent storm.
* Describe what is happening. Make a list of everything you see. (A man and woman hang over the water. They are using a life-saving device. High waves are crashing. There is a strong wind.) What caused this event? (A storm) What happened before? (A ship was wrecked in the storm.) Speculate on what will happen next. Will the rescue be successful?
Through the use of cool colors, white accents and diagonal lines, Homer depicts the atmospheric effects of a coastal storm.
* What colors did Homer use to paint the water and the sky? (Gray, blue, green and white) Why did he use these colors? (To reflect the colors visible on an overcast stormy day) While vertical and horizontal lines suggest stability or inactivity, diagonal lines imply movement. Where do you see diagonal lines? (Waves and ropes) Why would Homer want to suggest movement? (To demonstrate the strong wind and violent movements of the waves and their power on a stormy day)
The Power of Nature
In many of Homer's paintings, including The Life Line, he depicted the uncontrollable power of nature.
* Man's relationship to nature has been a popular theme in the visual arts. How does Homer show the power of nature? (A storm at sea has caused the destruction of a ship. It may also cause the deaths of the rescuer and the ship's survivor.) How do the figures respond to the effects of the storm (shipwreck)? (The mariner attempts to save the survivor with the use of the breeches buoy.) What kind of statement is Homer making about the relationship between humans and the environment? Which is more powerful, humans or nature? (Man can invent ways to cope with the effects of the environment, but it is ultimately the storm that caused the shipwreck and could save the figures' lives (by not crashing into them) or force the man to drop the woman and maybe even cause him to fall into the ocean.)
In The Life Line, Homer demonstrates how, through cooperation, people can attempt to overcome the destructive forces of nature.
* How does Homer draw attention to the people? (Through the bright color of the red scarf and the diagonal lines of the ropes converging at the figure) How does Homer show the power of people? (People invented the life-saving device. And, through courage and strength, the man holds on to the woman in the face of the storm.) Can one figure in the painting act alone? List all evidence of cooperative efforts. (No. People on the shore shoot the rope to the ship; someone on the ship attaches the line; someone hoists the woman on to the life preserver; the rescuer holds on to the woman; the woman holds on to the rope; someone pulls the figures back to shore.) What would happen if any of these steps did not happen? (The woman would not be saved.) Using The Life Line as evidence, what do you think are Homer's views about the success of human efforts in the face of disaster?
* Ask your students how to paint weather. What colors do you see on a sunny day and on a stormy day? Using watercolors, paint pictures of a place on a sunny day and on a stormy day. Notice how color affects the mood of the painting.
* Write a newspaper account of the disaster depicted in The Life Line. Include imaginary quotes from some of the figures. Illustrate it with another scene from the story.
* Artists do not always paint water as a smooth blue surface. It can appear to be made up of many colors, depending on factors such as the clarity of the water, its depth, the weather conditions and the reflection of objects. Paint a seascape. It can be based on The Life Line, another work by Homer or a different artist, a body of water near you or their own imaginations. Before selecting paint colors, consider the factors listed above.
* Research what ships looked like in the late 1800s. Draw a picture of the ship that might have been wrecked in this scene.
* Letter writing was an important means of communication in the 1800s. Imagine you are the rescuer or the survivor. Write an imaginary letter home as if you are one of the figures. Describe your thoughts and feelings during the storm.
* Natural disasters--flooding, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, fires--occur everyday. Discuss natural threats to your community. How do people cope with these disasters? What can you do to help if a disaster occurs near home?…
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Publication information: Article title: Winslow Homer: Struggling with the Elements of Nature. Contributors: Losos, Carol M. - Author. Magazine title: School Arts. Volume: 94. Issue: 5 Publication date: January 1995. Page number: 23+. © 1999 Davis Publications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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