Ironically, Winslow Homer became a great American artist in large part because he spent nearly two years living in an English fishing village at the edge of the North Sea.
Before he settled in Cullercoats in the spring of 1881, Homer had built up an impressive portfolio of prints and paintings that marked him as a perceptive observer of American life, particularly as lived outdoors.
These images often depicted ordinary people such as farm boys, or fashionably dressed young women at leisure. Except for the vignettes of army life he created for Harper's Weekly during the Civil War, Homer's early work is generally sunny.
The tranquil harbor scene with sailboats titled Clear Sailing, painted in watercolor about 1880, typifies the spirit of Homer's art before his trip to England. The Life Line, a major oil painted four years later, reveals a dramatic shift to a darker, more romantic outlook on life.
Homer's transition is illuminated beautifully in an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called "Shipwreck!" It's not a blockbuster-scale show, and not all about Homer, yet his exposure to lives lived in daily conflict with nature at its most treacherous predominates.
The Life Line not only marks the point at which Homer adopted a more existential framework for his pictures, it signals the beginning of his ascent to the pinnacle of 19th-century American art, a position he shared with Thomas Eakins.
After Cullercoats, Homer concentrated on painting the sea, both as a natural force and as a human adversary. His paintings from the mid-1880s until his death in 1910 made him America's foremost marine artist.
Many of these were made at his home on Prouts Neck, on the Maine coast just below Portland, where he moved in 1883 after living in New York City for two decades. Never exactly convivial, he became more reclusive in Maine as his art became leaner, tougher, and more expressive of elemental forces and values.
Art Museum curator Kathleen A. Foster explores Homer's epiphany through a theme that had engaged European artists at least since the 17th century - ships in peril. The centerpiece is The Life Line, owned by the Art Museum, which Homer painted in 1884, shortly after returning from England.
By this time he knew the sea intimately - from having crossed the Atlantic four times, from visiting Gloucester, Mass., during several summers, and most of all from living for 20 months in a house perched on a cliff facing the often tempestuous North Sea.
He witnessed shipwrecks, and documented one in the large watercolor The Wreck of the Iron Crown, which depicts a lifesaving crew rowing through towering surf toward the foundering ship.
He sketched anxious wives of fishermen waiting on the beach in stormy weather for their husbands to return. As the exhibition indicates, these sturdy helpmates became iconic figures for him; he seems to have paid far more attention to them than to the fishermen.
The power of The Life Line derives from its economy. Homer eliminated the ship, the shore, and any onlookers in order to focus our attention on two people - a presumably unconscious young woman being rescued and her rescuer, his face obscured by the woman's vivid red scarf flapping in the wind.
Seated in a slinglike canvas device called a breeches buoy, they dangle precariously from a rope slung between ship and shore, so close to the water that the man's boots slosh through wave crests.
The rope sags ominously; one senses that at any second it will snap and the two will plunge into the raging surf or be dashed against nearby rocks.
The Life Line dazzled audiences when it was shown in the spring of 1884 at the National Academy of Design in New York, and it retains its striking immediacy to this day. It was then, and still is, the most mesmerizing rescue-at-sea picture since Théodore Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa.
Foster has contextualized the oil with a drawn study for the figures that reveals the rescuer's face, an engraving after the canvas, and several related pictures, particularly the Cullercoats scene called The Gale, in which a woman holding a child strides along a stormy beach.
The Gale was adapted from an earlier version that included a lifesaving station and boat; Homer removed these and cut down the canvas, isolating the woman against the foaming surf and pewter-gray sky and making her more monumental and heroic.
So far we have spoken only of Homer, but he is not the whole of "Shipwreck!" - less than half the checklist, in fact. Foster draws us into the world of marine disasters through earlier shipwreck pictures by artists such as the Frenchman Claude-Joseph Vernet, the English painter George Morland, Philadelphia artist William Trost Richards, and two Americans born in England, Thomas Birch and Edward Moran.
Homer before Cullercoats presents a stark contrast to these romantic tempests. We've already mentioned Clear Sailing; it is complemented by two other watercolors painted at the same time in the same place - Two Schooners, Gloucester, and Two Sailboats.
After The Life Line, Homer produced a steady procession of marine images that communicated not only the majesty and unpredictability of the sea but the danger inherent in trying to earn a living upon it, in both northern and tropical waters.
Winter Coast, an 1890 oil, pits surging Maine surf against rock, the implacable force smashing against the immovable object. And there are sharks, which he most memorably portrayed in The Gulf Stream (not in the exhibition) and in a watercolor titled Sharks (The Derelict) of 1885.
Homer continued to paint the sea until he died, but he also painted less lugubrious subjects, especially his images of fishing and outdoor life in the Adirondacks.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the Boston-born artist is that he was essentially self-taught as a painter in both oils and watercolors. He traveled twice to Europe but, unlike his near contemporary, Eakins, he didn't study there or, with the exception of a few life classes at the National Academy of Design, anywhere else.
This handsome exhibition not only illuminates the turning point of his career, and of his life, it also reminds us how thoroughly he mastered each medium, and how many memorable images he introduced into American art.
Art: Down to the Sea
"Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Line" continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through Dec. 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission to Perelman only is $10 general, $8 for visitors 65 and older, and $7 for students with ID and visitors 13 through 18. Pay what you wish on the first Sunday of each month. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
Contact Edward J. Sozanski at email@example.com.