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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 7

Lesson 5: Realism in the United States

Homer, The Life Line

Winslow Homer, The Life Line, 1884, oil on canvas, 28-5/8 x 44-3/4 inches / 72.7 x 113.7 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Female: If it seem a painting of a woman being rescued from a shipwreck by a courageous man, whose risking his life would be filled with sentiment and emotion. What's so wonderful to me about Winslow Homer is the lack of that sentiment. We have this dramatic moment. Homer has not exploited it emotionally. Male: In fact he's even hidden the face of the hero. Female: That's a remarkable decision when you think about it. The man whose saving this womans life, his face is completely obscured by this scarf that just happens at this moment to have [whipped] in front of his face. Of course, this isn't a photograph. Male: This incredible sense of kind of selfless heroism. These paintings by Homer were recognizes inherently American. Their themes, I think, still resonate with us. When you listen to somebody whose performed a dramatic rescue, perhaps on the nightly news, they also push the camera away. There is a way in which we want to be selfless in these moments. Female: We have a real feeling of watching this drama unfold. Male: The emphasis is almost on the mechanics of the rescue. This was a new technology that allowed for the rescue of people from ships near the shore. You can just make out the loose sail billowing in the upper left corner. You can see people who are watching the rescue on rocks at the upper right. In fact, that rope bows down and we can feel the weight of these figures as they skirt with their feet, this terrifying surf. The colors and the tones their so subdued and they create the sense of the freezing menace of the water. It's not just that they're soaked through. They don't have much time. That woman is unconscious and close to freezing to death. There is this real sense of urgency. Female: So, we look at the water we see grey's, pale blues, and tones of white. Lots of different kinds of brush strokes from little dabs of paint that suggest the water is spraying upward, to longer strokes that suggest the force of the waves. Male: I actually love that area just at the cliffs on the upper right. You can see the spray dissolving even the solid blacks. If you look at the waves immediately below the cliffs, you can see the translucently where the wave is very thin and light moves through it. Female: Look at mans right foot in the water. You feel it dragging in the way that it's slowing them down as they move along this pulley. Male: There's a real sense of the particulars that make this seem so immediate, and I love the way the water drips from that cord. Female: Somehow, the paint seems wet as though there were water spraying up from below that the clothes the figures are wearing is soaked through. Male: In fact, in someways this painting is a nude. The woman is wearing a dress that is absolutely proper, but her outfit is so laden with water that it follows the contours of her body. Female: Look at the drops of water from her right hand. He could really paint. Male: If you follow her hips down there's just a little bit of skin that's exposed just above her knee. You see that perhaps her petticoat below her dress. I can almost imagine a 19th century viewer wanting to pull that down to retrieve her modesty. Female: This really typical of the subject that Homer painted later in his career when he lived in Maine. This idea of man and the forces of nature, and the futility of mans efforts in the face of nature. Although in this case we do have a successful struggle. Male: Obviously, Homer didn't paint this on a beach watching a rescue. The painting is based loosely on a fairly recent rescue of the coast in New Jersey, but was actually posed in New York City in where he kept his studio even after he had moved to Prouts Neck. This was a studio building on West 10th Street. Imagine then his models up on the roof and him drenching them with water to make the effect just right. He recognized as a brilliant painter in his own day. He was honored as the foremost American painter. (piano music)