The Winslow Homer painting, “The Life Line,” is the centerpiece of a new exhibit opening September 22, 2012, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Painted in 1884, it depicts wildly stormy seas and giant waves threatening to overcome a figure who hangs from a pulley on a rescue line, holding fast to a young drowned woman in his arms. The dramatic scene sets the stage for the exhibit’s theme of catastrophes and rescues at sea, with artwork from the 17th through the middle of the 19th centuries.
Included in the exhibition are several pieces that portray dogs as part of rescue efforts, including two 19th-century Currier and Ives lithographs from Sir Edwin Landseer’s paintings of Newfoundlands. The first and most dramatic, “He is Saved,” (c. 1866-1872) was engraved after Landseer’s painting entitled “Saved,” exhibited in 1856 at the Royal Academy in London.
Although Landseer was an English artist, he based “Saved” on the notoriety of an American dog. According to maritime historian Jeremy D’Entremont an expert on New England’s historic lighthouses, Milo was a Newfoundland-St. Bernard cross that lived with George Taylor, the keeper of the lighthouse on Egg Rock, a three-acre island situated less than a mile northeast of the town of Nahant off the coast of Massachusetts. In the mid-1800s, many fishing vessels plied the waters of the Atlantic, north of Boston Harbor, and, after five lives were lost in a shipwreck in the area in 1843, the lighthouse was erected to warn boats away from harm’s way. Taylor lived at the Egg Rock Lighthouse with his wife and five children, as well as chickens, goats and Milo.
On “New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide” D’Entremont shares the legend that in foggy weather, Milo’s booming bark warned vessels as they approached Egg Rock. Taylor claimed that his dog’s bark was as useful as the lighthouse itself. Over the years, Milo is said to have saved several children from drowning around Egg Rock, and his fame spread across the ocean to England. Landseer painted Milo on a rocky shore with a small boy lying prostrate across his front legs. The painting was later engraved under four different titles by Currier and Ives, and became famous all over America.
The second Currier and Ives engraving in the exhibit is “To the Rescue” (c. 1877-1894), based on Landseer’s “Off to the Rescue,” commissioned by the Earl of Dudley of his beloved Newfoundland, Bashaw. The great black and white dog is depicted on the shore, prepared to leap into action.
The Newfoundland Club of America has a section on its website, “The Newfoundland in Art and Literature,” that includes photographs of these two Landseer paintings and others that include the breed.
An etching entitled “The Shipwreck” (c. 1772-1829), by Jean Louis Demarne, is also included. The Brussels-born artist portrayed a soaking wet dog standing on a shore howling mournfully, a hat at his feet and a shipwreck off in the distance. Demarne had his greatest success as an artist with creations that depicted animals set in landscapes. One can feel the sorrow of the little dog in this print as it grieves for its master.
The exhibit includes these and other works detailing tragedies at sea coupled with heroic acts by both humans and canines, in mediums ranging from prints to ceramic vases. It runs through December 16, 2012, in the Exhibition Gallery of the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.