The woman was being saved from a shipwreck, a familiar sight along the East Coast in the late 19th century, and a common subject for artists from the 17th century through Homer's time.
"Shipwreck!" is a tour of this drama as it was depicted in poems, ceramics, drawings, magazine articles and in paintings. Walking through the exhibition at the Perlman Building is like walking into the storm and surf and spray, the life-and-death struggle of actual shipwrecks as they occurred in the perilous days of sea voyaging.
Curator Kathleen A. Foster, senior curator of American art at the museum, selected works from the museum's collection and from private collections. Other paintings include American Henry Bacon's "Land and Goodbye" (1877), and European works such as "The Shipwreck" (1772), by French artist Claude Joseph Vernet.
Homer's "Life Line," in the museum's collection for more than 90 years, is a fitting centerpiece to such an exhibit. Homer had portrayed drama at sea in earlier paintings, as had many of his contemporaries. But with this work, Homer distilled the essence of the event into its most concise form. In the immediate background is the slate-gray sea, crashing and formidable. The far background of the painting gives the viewer yet more gray, the gray of a stormy sky in league with the awesome power of the ocean.
Across the painting from left to right is a rope and pulley, so thin and tenuous against the tremendous power all around. At the center of the painting, the hero clings to the damsel in distress. One look at this image and we are deeply involved. We know what has happened - a shipwreck and a rescue - and we eagerly anticipate the conclusion to the tale.
They are going to make it, we think - we hope. But maybe not. Maybe the rope will fail. Maybe the next great wave will overwhelm them before they can reach the shore. All the drama of man versus nature is captured in this one climatic moment. It is storytelling at its very best.
There is, however, another no-less-interesting story being told in Homer's "Life Line" about the tradition of narrative painting, of which Homer had become a master.
By 1884, many of the most prominent painters in Europe and America were experimenting with styles and techniques different from Homer's realist approach. Homer had traveled to France years before he painted "The Life Line" and seen the paintings of Claude Monet and other European innovators in the Impressionist movement. But he was also stubborn. He was still interested in paintings that could be narrative and dramatic.
He said, by way of his own defense, "Artists should never look at pictures but should stutter in a language of their own."
"The Life Line" could be seen as an attempt to buck the trends - the painter's own act of heroism. If the scarf obscuring the hero's face in the painting could be drawn aside, it might reveal the face of the artist himself.
Homer did not save narrative painting. Impressionism and other "isms" carried painting toward abstraction, Pop and other directions.
Late in life, outshined by the Impressionist movement, Homer became something of a recluse, exploring themes of nature in his paintings and spending time alone in Maine and New York state. The final room in the exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum includes some lovely examples of Homer's late paintings, of rocky shores and forlorn seascapes.
Some of the techniques Homer is using in these paintings are similar to what you would find in an Impressionist, or even an Expressionist painting. But not quite.
It is as if Homer had finally found a language of painting he could live with. He isn't using painting to tell dramatic stories to his fellow human beings anymore. It is more like he is having a private conversation with nature, or with God. In those last paintings, he is finally stuttering in a language all his own.
"Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line," through Dec. 31, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, till 8:45 p.m. Friday, $20, $18 seniors, $14 students and ages 13-18, 12 and under free, 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org.
Morgan Meis is critic-in-residence at the Center for Cultural Outreach at Drexel University's Pennoni Honors College. Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.