Perfect storm

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Winslow Homer's majestic seascapes have helped to make him one America's most treasured artists, says Gillian Wolfe

Winslow Homer


Homer was influenced early on by his mother, a talented watercolourist. He earned his living as an illustrator and went on to record the American Civil War. His stay at Tynemouth, in England, greatly affected his painting and he became one of the most influential 19th-century American artists.

His work is seen as an expression of the early pioneering spirit.

Rarely has the drama of humanity versus the elements been captured so evocatively as in this potent and sensitive portrayal of human survival against all odds. Winslow Homer's painting "The Life Line" dramatises the tempestuous union of man, woman and the sea. Painted in 1884, it was at once in the New York Herald Tribune as a "masterpiece, one of the pictures of the year". Male and female are cast in archetypal role: the helpless and vulnerable woman held safe in the protective arms of her saviour, the strong coastguard. She reclines, submissive, his taut arm encircling her body. Her exhausted limbs hang limp, his tense limbs will not give her up as he grips her tight against him.

Sensuality is expressed in the way the woman's sodden clothes cling revealingly to her feminine form - thin dishevelled drapery stretched across her thighs, moulding her shape and allowing a glimpse of flesh above the knees. It is a scene of idealised chivalry as the "damsel in distress"

is rescued by her knight, the courageous coastguard. Both figures balance on a breeches buoy, usually used to rescue sailors, while women and children were more normally brought to land in a far less crude "lifecar".

Intriguingly, the artist added a red scarf to disguise the coastguard's face after the painting was finished. One critic has suggested that if it could be removed we would see the self-portrait of Homer. Perhaps red is a colour-marker of distress against an otherwise stony-coloured raging sea.

Perhaps it symbolises the red-blooded humanity of the two figures battling for life; we shall never know.

Winslow Homer was born in Boston, America, in 1836. He is considered one of the world's great watercolourists, but was also a master of oil paint. His work is little known in Britain, although he enjoys iconic status in the US, where he is ranked alongside James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Early in his career he worked as a freelance illustrator for Harper's Weekly. He was mostly self-taught, but was already an established artist in the US when he came to Europe in 1866, aged 30, to soak up the artistic trends in Paris. Artists douard Manet and Gustave Courbet were all the rage, as were the Japanese prints which influenced his work in the 1870s. Impressionism was waiting, gathering speed to burst into its golden age (1870-1880).

Homer was most attracted to Jean-Francois Millet's work for its gentle social comment and representations of ordinary people at work or leisure, clearly seen in "The Gleaners" (1857). Like so many artists of the time, he was concerned with depictions of light and plein air painting to catch elusive atmospheric effects in all weathers. In this respect he was to revolutionise American painting in the 1880s with his quasi-Impressionist style allied to magical Courbet-like sea studies.

In the 1880s, Homer made a temporary home in Cullercoats, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where there was a small community of artists. What most impressed him was the tough lifestyle of the strong, heroic fisherwomen, whose gruelling lives were totally dependent on the sea. These women, wearing the traditional shawls and aprons which intrigued Homer, are immortalised in such paintings as "A Fresh Breeze" (1881). Millet's influence can be seen in these sympathetic portrayals of hard-working women living by the harsh and mighty ocean, with ever-present fears of danger and loss.

After this Homer returned to America in 1882 with a new seriousness of purpose. Painting the sea became his true passion. "Breezing Up" (1876) is one of many delightful pictures featuring children as free spirits by or on the sea. "The Gulf Stream" (1899) illustrates an ongoing concern for black emancipation, yet still with a sea theme, while "Summer Night" (1890), a picture of two women dancing by the shore, is one of his most romantic images. It was praised by Claude Monet when it was exhibited in Paris 1900, where it won the exposition Gold Medal.

On the death of his mother in 1884, Homer left New York City for a remote beach-side studio in Prout's Neck, an isolated peninsula in Maine. This lonely lifestyle suited him. Here, with the waves pounding the rocks around him, he found all the drama he needed by the sea. His later, unpeopled marine images, for example "The Herring Net" or "Shark Fishing" (both 1885), capture the danger, beauty, melancholy, power and sheer magnificence of the sea.

The dazzling quality of Homer's masterpieces is celebrated in the current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. "The Life Line" is a seminal work portraying human vulnerability and man's capacity for survival at the hands of a cruel sea.

Gillian Wolfe is head of education at Dulwich Picture Gallery



Show Homer's picture alongside JMWTurner's "Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth", at Tate Britain.

Explain how Turner had himself strapped to the ship's mast for two hours while the storm raged so he could later paint it.

Discuss evocative vocabulary and ask children to write an illustrated story about a storm, shipwreck, and exciting rescue.


Compare and contrast different techniques of painting water. Include images by John Atkinson Grimshaw, JMWTurner, Alfred Wallis, Canaletto and, of course, the Impressionists, all of whom are well represented in British collections.

Use the "less is more" medium of watercolour to create subtle and magical watery pictures.

Look at the 3D potential of the figures in "The Lifeline".

Show the way Michelangelo and Henry Moore used drapery to accentuate the sculptural form of the figure.

Using clay, model figures and show how fabric actually emphasises the shape of the body.

Trace themes of social comment in art. Go from the early work of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (circa 1525-1569), on to the legacy of Dutch genre paintings, Francisco de Goya, William Hogarth's satires, the overt social comment of Victorian artists; also the Pre-Raphaelites, and many more.

Show how John Francois Millet's "The Gleaners" influenced Vincent Van Gogh.

Where and how is social comment manifest in contemporary work today?


Using this image, ask students to name the traditional heroic figures in stories, poems and plays - Robin Hood, Superman, Harry Potter, and so on.

Make a drama reversing the usual role model to create a female parallel; how would the male role be played out?

Design and technology

Set up an experiment by tying a length of thin string or tough cotton between two pillars, then suspend increasingly heavy weights from it.

Assess the relation between weight and the tolerance of the string when it breaks. How much effort is needed to pull the load when the pulley sizes differ? For example, the larger the diameter of the pulley-wheel, the less the effort is needed, but the pulley is heavier.



Winslow Homer and the Sea by Carl Little

Pomegranate (out of print but available in libraries);

Winslow Homer Watercolours by Helen A Cooper, Yale University Press, Pounds 20

* Two exhibitions - Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea, and In the Age of Winslow Homer: American Prints 1880-1900 from the Collection of Reba and Dave Williams - are on until 21 May at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21 7AD.

Tel: 0208 693 5254

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