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Philadelphia Museum of Art opens Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line

Philadelphia Museum of Art opens Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line, an exhibition on view September 22, 2012 – December 16, 2012.

The Life Line (1884) by Winslow Homer, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Winslow Homer’s masterpiece The Life Line (1884) is the center of an exhibition about the making and meaning of an iconic American image of rescue. One of the great popular and critical successes of the artist’s career, the painting engages age-old themes of peril at sea and the power of nature, while celebrating modern heroism and the thrill of unexpected intimacy between strangers thrown together by disaster.

The opening gallery, “Shipwreck!”, introduces the tradition of depicting marine catastrophes from the first great age of sea painting in the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. The aftermath for those waiting on shore follows in the section “Hope and Heartache.” In contrast, “They’re Saved! They’re Saved!,” quoting the title of an image that appeared in Homer’s youth in many formats, from Currier & Ives prints to ceramic vases, introduces a section exploring the theme of romantic rescue, inevitably featuring a burly hero and a helpless damsel.

The Life Line draws on the traditional shipwreck scenario–mountainous waves, wind and spray, a helpless vessel, and a desperate human struggle–with an original, modern perspective. The exhibition includes earlier work, such as images of suspense and rescue Homer (1836–1910) painted on the north coast of England in 1881–82. Preparatory drawings for The Life Line and etchings of the subject that followed help analyze changes the artist made in the final image, also seen in pentimenti (places where the artist changed his mind and revised the composition) on the surface of the painting and in recent X-radiographs.

A small group of prints and paintings made by Homer after 1884 continues his themes of anxiety, struggle, and stoicism in the face of tragedy. Such human narratives receded as more abstract themes of elemental conflict–land, sea, and sky–dominated the last two decades of the artist’s career. –

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