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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)