Lifeline Winslow Homer
The Life Line 1884 Winslow Homer

You can visit this painting in person or virtually at the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts


You read about them and see them at work everyday though we rarely know their names.  The title of this paintng is Lifeline and the subject of this painting by Winslow Homer is rescue.  The rescuer is central to this painting.  In fact, the artist has placed him at the center.  The red scarf that covers his identity is the focal point of the painting.  But, there are two figures surrounded by a rough and dark sea contributing to the dramatic struggle.  There is a young woman in distress-she is unconscious.  The rescuer has joined her by choice and duty in a fight for survival. We, the viewers are also there.  How does Homer place us in the painting and how does the painting communicate with us?

Let's start with tools of the artist.  The colors that the artist has chosen are contrasting in nature.  Blue is a cool color and red is a warm color.  Cool colors tend to recede into the background whereas warm colors tend to advance forward, toward the viewer.  When we look at this painting we see that the woman's clothing blends in with the sky.  The red scarf becomes more accentuated.  Our attention is drawn to it not only because of the placement of it but the color.  The lines reflect strong diagonals telling us of the movement of the billowing moving waves.  The line of the pulley is stretched across the upper plane of the composition.  It actually is longer than the painting for it stretches out into the distance on either side.  Is this a ship to ship or ship to shore rescue?  The shapes of the two individuals has been one dense shape, we know it is heavy because they dip into the sea.  Spatially the artist has placed the couple in peril.  If they were raised higher we wouldn't feel the drama, but by placing the figures at the mid lower plane part of their bodies are covered in water.  They are in a precarious situation surrounded by water, but there is hope.

Winslow Homer saw these kinds of rescues and their successes.  According to Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art website the breeches buoy was a innovative rescue device that had just been made possible.  But does this tell the whole story?  What does the painting mean or say to you personally?  For me, the Lifeline celebrates the unsung heroes who risk their lives to save their fellow humans, and those who hear a different drummer when it comes to what they want to do with their lives.  I think the artist has purposely hidden the face of the rescuer.  It's not often that we know about the person who did the rescuing.  We often learn more about the person that was rescued.  There is another element in hiding the face with the red scarf, the drama is heightened there is yet another obstacle in the face of the person trying to rescue our victim.  But, also the painting is about adventure.  Not just the adventure of the artist but the vicarious thrill of the viewer.  Who is behind the scarf?  It might be you!

Want to see more paintings by Winslow Homer.  A good resource is the Anthenaueum at