“Wreck in the Offing!” – Scene in a Life-saving Station by Howard Pyle

1984-29 “Wreck in the Offing!” – Scene in a Life-saving Station,” 1878, forHarper’s Weekly, March 9, 1878
Howard Pyle (1853-1911)
Gouache on paper, 14 3/4 x 21 1/8 inches
Gayle and Alene Hoskins Endowment Fund, 1984

This illustration is on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the exhibition Shipwreck! Winslow Homer and The Life Linethrough January 1, 2013. It is one of 78 works of art and artifacts that provided a context for Winslow Homer’s painting The Life Line(1884; Philadelphia Museum of Art), a scene of a rescue at sea.  It also provided a turning point in Howard Pyle’s career.

The scene is set in a life-saving station, where the sentry assigned to patrol the beach watching for ships in trouble rushes in shouting to the watchmen that he has spied a shipwreck nearby.  Startled, they react to his summons with varying degrees of alarm.

Pyle’s submission of the drawing to Harper’s Weekly was timely and was based on his visit to a life-saving station on the Virginia coast. The subject coincided with a national awareness of the failures of the United States Life-Saving Service, founded in 1871 with a federal mandate to establish watch houses and brigades for response to Atlantic coast offshore emergencies. However, Congress gave the Service little supervision and even less financial support, and its performance was condemned after the wreck of USS Huron off Nags Head, North Carolina, in 1877, at a cost of 98 lives.  The loss of the steamship Metropolis two months later and twenty miles north caused a renewed outcry, along with demands that Congress increase the Service’s staff and funds.

Harper’s Weekly was a powerful voice in calling for reform and support of the Life-Saving Service. Pyle’s illustration accompanied the paper’s exposé of the inadequacies of the Atlantic stations.  In the painting of a rustic shack and its men on watch, the patrolman rushes in with the call to action, his expression reflecting panic more than command. He interrupts the card-playing central group, their portrait-like faces illuminated by lamplight, and surprises a rather somnolent (or drunk) old man at left. One rescuer reaches immediately for his gear. The others have not yet moved toward the sparse equipment nearby. Pyle’s scene served two purposes. It emphasized the harsh conditions, limited provisions, and prolonged boredom of the watchmen, whose wages according to Harper’s Weekly were “ridiculously low.”  But it also reminded readers of the rescuers’ heroism.  The text cited the dramatic reduction in shipwreck deaths since the Life-Saving Service had been granted even its minimal standing.  Three months after Pyle contributed Wreck in the Offing! to Harper’s Weekly’s editorial, the United Life-Saving Service became an agency with a larger budget and professional staff, its own superintendent and a plan to build more watch stations manned by trained personnel.

The publication of Wreck in the Offing! was a significant milestone in Pyle’s career.  Several months earlier, he had asked Harper’sart editor if he could submit a finished drawing, not the usual preliminary one that would be redrawn by one of the experienced illustrators in the publisher’s art department, and the editor agreed. The magnitude of this opportunity unnerved the 25-year-old artist, who later said, “I think it was not until I stood in the awful presence of the art director himself that I realized how this might be the turning point of my life.” The risk paid off: Pyle was paid $75 (triple his usual fee) and now had not just a double-page spread but also an entrée to a roster of distinguished Harper’s illustrators. A year later, Pyle would return permanently to Wilmington, confident that publishers would continue to send him assignments.

Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibitions

This Curator Corner was posted on December 4, 2012.