Winslow Homer’s Tumultuous Seas and Passive Women

This post is really a shameless plug for my own research, but hopefully you’ll find it somewhat interesting.  I’m giving a presentation for SCU’s annual Art History Symposium this week about Winslow Homer (an American painter from the late 19th century) and the sexual politics revealed in his seascapes.  Amidst the pinnacle of the women’s suffrage movement, Homer painted a series of large seascapes showcasing fishermen and women from Northeastern and Northumbrian fishing villages.  When trying to decide on a research topic for my 18th & 19th century American Art class in the fall, I was flipping through a few art books and came across this image:

Winslow Homer's "The Life Line," 1884, oil on canvas, 29 x 45 in.

My initial thought was, “Well that’s pretty sexual for a 19th century American painting.”  I kept reading about it…and reading…and nothing.  Zero mention of what I saw to be an incredibly sexual, fairly degrading image.  After digging through some more articles and books, I found that there were a few people who agreed with me, but only wrote short quips about Homer’s dangling, drenched woman.  So here’s a little presentation preview:

In Homer’s The Life Line, a faceless male figure rescues an unconscious woman from the treacherous seas below.  He utilizes a pulley system connected to a fading ship seen in the distance on the left side of the canvas.  She dangles helplessly from the pulley, her head fallen and limp, her life entirely dependent upon the man whose face is hidden behind her red scarf, which blows furiously as the figures glide towards safety.  Homer chose to depict the most dramatic moment in the narrative in order to get his audience as emotionally and intellectually engaged as possible.  The thin rope could snap at any moment.  The color palette shows a gray and blue sea and sky intertwining and offsetting the darker, more detailed figures suspended by the life line, especially highlighting the stark brightness of the woman’s red scarf.

The viewer’s eye moves around the painting, following the flow of the waves and the horizontal life line, but always coming back to the two central figures.  The notion of a helpless, unconscious woman reinforces the idea of female passivity, especially in such an action-packed scene.  The sensuousness and sexuality of the image exhibits itself in the wet clothes clinging to the woman’s flesh, the sense of drenched bodies clutched together weighing down the thin rope, the turbulent waters below the figures, and the spray of the sea.

Homer repeated this type of rescue scene coupling helpless, sodden women and erect, powerful men in other paintings, namely his 1886 Undertow.

Winslow Homer's "Undertow," 1886, oil on canvas, 30 x 48"

The male figures with rippling, taut muscles drag the helpless, limp females from the sea by their hair and garments. While Homer attends closely to the details of the muscles of these male figures, he spends equal time explicitly painting how the women’s garments cling to their wet, dripping bodies.  These nearly lifeless women become the recipients of a vigorous male life force.  The men are strength and virility personified, while the women represent erotic passivity.

During the early 1880s, the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum in America, and the ideas about the importance of civil rights and equality began to spread.  Women knew that in order to gain an effective voice in American society, that they would need to gain political power, as well as a form of mass communication to express the need for change.  Susan B. Anthony published the first women’s rights magazine, The Revolution, in 1868.  In this issue, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared:

“When women have the power to vote men in their places, [men] will learn new phrases for their peers, just as they learned to spell ‘negro’ with one ‘g,’ as soon as black men were free and held the ballot.”

Clearly, these American women were not being passive or unconscious, but rather, they were asserting their own agency.  Their actions and words greatly contrast with Homer’s compliant women who are in this grave danger because they have dared to venture beyond the safety of the shore.

In a time period so concerned with female modesty, legs, not breasts, were considered the sexualized part of a woman’s body, which is why necklines fluctuated but skirts were long.  The visible bits of thigh and lower legs in The Life Line and the clearly defined pelvic area make this quite a racy depiction for audiences at the time.

Detail of Homer's "The Life Line"

Another troubling issue within these images, aside from the obviously sexualized female bodies, lies in the men’s hidden identities.

The drama of the women being saved from drowning is enhanced by the fact that the identities of principle subjects are hidden; despite the large size of the pictures and the closeness of the figures to the viewer, they could be anybody. -Ted Loos, Homer Scholar

Homer offers his characters’ bodies up for display, but does not give the audience a real sense of psychological presence seen most clearly through a person’s eyes.  (I will go into issues of “the male gaze” in a later post, I’m sure.)

While the faceless male figures and the highly sexualized and passive bodies of the female figures certainly suggest Homer’s chauvinist political leanings, how he utilizes space in his paintings truly illustrates his sexual politics. Homer utilized physical space in his paintings of shorelines and water, as well as his heroic scenes, to delineate the sea as a man’s place in which women would only flounder.

Winslow Homer's "Inside the Bar: Cullercoats," 1883, Watercolor and graphite on off-white wove paper, 16 x 29"

As you can see in this image of Homer’s painting Inside the Bar, Cullercoats, Homer has placed this female figure on the shore, walking on a narrow strip of land while staring out at the sea, where a boat of men has just departed.  Homer essentially traps women in this complex, liminal shoreline, while giving men free reign in the sea.

This is interesting considering that in Western tradition, while Poseidon, god of the sea is male, the sea itself is usually gendered female.  So the sea itself represents threatening female power, which explains the need to “conquer” her with boats, ropes, and navigation technology.  Women, of course, are not permitted to access this power in any way.  Homer even goes so far to show in his paintings that it is deadly to do so.

My actual paper/presentation includes much more art historical theory (Mulvey & Pollock, namely), but this is a short(ish) and sweet version, so you have a taste for what kind of research interests me!

Sources:

Cikovsky, Nicolai, Jr. Winslow Homer. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1990.

Loos, Ted. “Casting Light on Homer’s Dark Side.” Arts & Antiques v. 19 (March 1996), 108-114.

Rakow, Lana and Cheris Kramarae (Eds.). The Revolution in Words: Righting Women, 1968-1871. New York City: Routledge, 1990.

Shanes, Eric, et al. Winslow Homer: Poet of the Sea. Ed. Sophie Levy. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2006.

(Also, Santa Clara Professor, Dr. Andrea Pappas, was a huge help in all of this research.)

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27 thoughts on “Winslow Homer’s Tumultuous Seas and Passive Women

  1. Homer was almost certainly homosexual(citation below), so it is no wonder that his art glorified the masculine. And there was nothing extraordinary about his upbringing (like having a suffragette or Quaker for a mother) that would point him in the direction of portraying the woman as anything other than anyone else had done prior to the popularization of Feminism.

    Please cite your information on his “political leanings,” because I’ve never heard that he was conservative for his era.

    I’d challenge you to find any artist of this era representing women as strong individualists. Are you certain that he wasn’t just painting in the general Victorian idiom /idealization of women of the era?

    I apologize for being a third wave feminist, but I think your critique is lacking historical perspective, and particularly Homer’s own personal perspective. I think his portrayal of fisher women are strong, like Inside the Bar, where he shows her as a monolithic, stable pillar of the land while the men are out on the treacherous ocean in their small, wave-tossed boats.

    As for his homosexuality: http://www.glbtq.com/arts/am_art_gay_19c.html

    1. I really enjoyed your critique (and don’t worry about ever apologizing for being a third wave feminist)! I do believe that Homer was acting in the vein of the Victorian idiom of the time, and I found his protrayal of women along the shoreline fascinating and actually quite forward-thinking for his time. What interested me most during my research, however, was the volatile relationship between women and water. While his female protagonists remain strong pillars of the community on land (very forward-thinking for his time, in my opinion), they turn into highly sexualized and helpless beings as soon as they enter the water. I was not necessarily trying to make Homer out to be a conservative nut job, but instead to point to how he utilizes water and the shoreline to delineate a man’s place and a woman’s place.

      In terms of Homer’s sexuality, while I came across a few scholarly articles that hinted at it, all of the sources stated that while it may be a safe assumption, that no solid evidence of his sexuality exists. I believe that in my more formal paper, I included a few paragraphs or footnotes discussing this, but I did not want to include it in my central argument simply because I did not feel that I had the evidence to back it up. I certainly see your point in taking that into account, and his sexuality and point of view are clearly paramount when discussing the deeper meanings of his work. Again, thank you for your critique! You’ve sparked my interest to keep researching this topic!

    2. You say no one expressed your views about Life Line. You should read how it was described in”American Paintings” published by the Amon Carter Museum. “A man hovering over a wild sea by a ring” It was at least better described than Charles Deas’ “A Group of Sioux” of which the critic misses a very important aspect of the background of the painting and thus poorly explains the meaning.

  2. Excerpted from: http://www.glbtq.com/arts/am_art_gay_19c.html

    “A prolific artist, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) produced many paintings and prints that represented and celebrated the camaraderie and intimate friendships of soldiers, hunters, and other men engaged in typically “masculine” outdoor occupations. Very unusually for a male artist of the nineteenth century, he also depicted the affection and enjoyment experienced by women together.

    A solitary individual, Homer consistently refused to reveal any details about his personal life to biographers and art critics. His contemporaries attributed his “failure” to marry to his “shyness” around women, and most scholars continue to endorse this opinion.

    One of Homer’s closest friends was Albert Kelsey, with whom he shared a studio in Paris for two years (1867-1868). A posed, studio photograph made in Paris commemorates their relationship; Kelsey stands, with his linked hands and arms resting on the shoulders and back of his friend, who is seated on a tall Greek column. Significantly, on the back of his copy of the photograph, which he preserved for the rest of his life, Kelsey wrote “Damon and Phythias,” a reference to the mythological heroes, who were devoted to one another. Later in his life, Homer made a witty drawing of Kelsey, riding nude on the back of a turtle in the Bahamas.”

    Thanks!

  3. Very interesting read. I just lead a discussion on a reading that gets into this idea regarding
    “life line.”

    This article may interest you:
    Jules D Prown, “Winslow Homer in His Art,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 1 (Spring 1987), pp.30-45.

  4. Years ago in architecture school, we were taught to attach all kinds of significant meaning to justify our designs. Every line, curve and form had to have ‘meaning’. “The glazing offers a glimpse into the soul of the space”—was a common canard.

    Anyway, why can’t these paintings be viewed as simple drama? In both paintings you cite, the men are faceless. The women are the subject of value. There faces are the only ones we see. From a male perspective, we were taught to seek heroes, to one day maybe be heroes. Perhaps these paintings reflect this spirit. Viewed though 19th-century eyes, the clingy wet dresses may be considered racy, possibly even sexual. But there is no sexual context. They are in the wild of nature, being rescued form peril. You’re probably right, but it just feels uncomfortable to assign sexuality to these images. And I did enjoy your analysis.

    1. The nice thing is that there is no right or wrong “answer” here! It’s great to get a male perspective on the issue. The first time that I saw The Lifeline, all that I could see were these helpless, drenched women. I couldn’t believe that no one had written extensively about the issue before (which may mean that I’m reading too far into things!). Thanks for reading and giving your feedback!

  5. I loved reading this! Very thoughtful and interesting commentary on how Homer depicted water as a place for men and not women. I don’t think I would have made that connection without reading this post. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  6. I also didn’t think of helpless women, but moreso that they were the focus and it was the men who were anonymous. (men in background, and men’s faces covered or facing away).
    BTW, he painted VARIETY of scenes, such as my fave, “Return of the Mistress” or “Waiting for an Answer” With no hints of male dominance. I also knew Homer never married but neither did Degas, Cassatt, John Sargent…

  7. I have going to sea for over forty years your explination of the ¨Life line¨ tells me you have not knowledge of the sea.
    It is men that go to sea all there life. That one horrific night would be when this would show it self just as it is. A woman being a poor passinger caught in the moment. Realty and not sexualty is what is shown here.

  8. If you look more closely at “Undertow,” you will see that the male rescuers are both holding the handles of some kind of basket. The man on the left is holding a rescue basket handle, not dragging the woman by her hair.

  9. Hi there,

    Winslow Homer is one of my favorite American painters and I was searching the web for a picture of “The Life Line” to use in a class I teach on the evolution of Tactical and Technical Rescue when I came upon your site.

    I read your article carefully and I do not agree with your view that Winslow Homer sexualized women in some of his paintings.

    “Waiting for the return of the fishing fleet” and “Where are the boats” are favorites of mine and I believe they illustrate strong women that endured many hardships to take care of a family while the men where at sea.

    I have a print of “The Life Line” in my office and I look at it every day.

    After reading your article I looked at the painting with a different eye and keeping your point of view in mind I still see the rescue of a person in distress. I take note of the method and technology and the dramatic story it tells; I never gave thought to the sexual exploitation of the woman illustrated.

    The breaches rescue shown in the painting was typical of the era and was performed by men of the Life Saving Service. When Mr. Homer drew the painting “men where men” and I believe that his paintings are a reflection of the time.

    Today a rope spanning a horizontal and diagonal distance is still used in rescue; it is commonly called a highline or a moving control point among other names.

    During the forty plus years I have served in Public Safety, rescue technique, methodologies and equipment have greatly improved.

    Presently and for the past 18-years my Team and I have responded to crisis domestic and abroad. I serve side by side with women who time and again distinguish themselves and earn the respect of their colleagues. Much has changed since Mr. Homer put his brush to canvas.

    I grew up spitting distance from the USS Constitution in Charlestown Massachusetts and have served time at sea. I am of Scottish decent and have sailed along the same coasts that Mr. Homer depicted in his paintings.

    I have great respect for our nations ocean going heritage.

    Your point of view is well taken…

    Anyway, if you are interested shoot me an e-mail and I will send some pictures you might enjoy of contemporary methods not far removed from “The Life Line”.

    Take care,

    Kevin

    1. Thank you so much, Kevin, for your thoughtful and highly informed response to this analysis! The range of people who stumble upon my blog, with such varying and interesting backgrounds, always blows my mind. Your response, in particular, has renewed my love for and interest in Homer’s work.

      My analysis of Homer’s “The Life Line” is written through a feminist critical lens, heavily based on Laura Mulvey’s theories about the male gaze. While I am certainly still able to analyze this painting, and a few other paintings by Homer, in this light (and it adds another interesting layer to his work, regardless of whether or not you agree), I have also gained a bit of perspective since originally researching and writing this piece 3-4 years ago as a young enthusiastic undergraduate.

      Truly, whenever I come across work by Homer, my first instinct is not to look for “sexualized and passive” women, but at the naturalism of his seascapes and his ability to transport me to into the shoes of a fisherman in late 19th century America–better than any other artist of his time, in my opinion.

      Thank you very much, again, for your own analysis and for sharing your thoughts and ideas on Homer’s work! Your comment has been very well-received.

  10. Interesting discussion – I appreciate the different points of view.

    The breeches buoy was the common means of rescuing people (and goods) from ships wrecked just offshore. Dramatic descriptions of its use may be found in “The Outermost House” by Harry Beston.

    I expect that even for women who grew up next to the sea, and spent their lives there, few if any ever learned to swim in those days. It would be expected then, that women might suffer a higher mortality rate in the event of shipwreck or even the capsizing of a small boat. Not to mention all those voluminous skirts, which would make swimming nigh impossible.

    For an interesting look at women’s lives and work (including on the water) in a 19th century seaside village in New England, I highly recommend “The Country of the Pointed FIrst” by Sarah Orne Jewett.

  11. Wow, men went to sea fishing, and the women stayed home!
    That was real life!!!
    “Homer essentially traps women in this complex, liminal shoreline, while giving men free reign in the sea.”
    He just portrayed what he observed.

  12. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating iit but,
    I’d like to send you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations
    for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way,
    great site and I look forward to seeing it grow over time.

    1. Thanks so much for your question, and for your interest in my blog! I don’t have contact information listed, although I plan to change that as soon as I’m done responding to you. Feel free to email me at maryckhayes@gmail.com. I’d be happy to take suggestions or feedback there. Again, thanks for reading, and look out for some new content soon (finally–after a much-too-long hiatus from blogging).

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