Winslow Homer can justifiably be considered the most distinguished American Realist of the nineteenth century. He is virtually alone among the artists of his generation in having been admired through every decade of the twentieth century. He continues to be remembered for the same large late paintings that brought him fame in his lifetime. These powerful canvases often present nature as detached or subtly hostile. Homer himself is frequently described in much the same terms: an aloof figure who guarded his privacy.
The most populated of Homer's late works, The Wreck is one of his last and most dramatic interpretations of a rescue at sea, a theme he introduced into his painting in the 1880s. The source of this painting was a shipwreck that Homer witnessed in 1896 off Higgins Beach at Prout's Neck, Maine, near his friend Charles Jordan's farm. He made a quick thumbnail sketch of the lifeboat crew, which he enclosed in a letter to his brother Charles. At the same time, he began a painting from the incident.
The Wreck is a catalogue of thematic elements that Homer had used in previous depictions of rescues at sea. Here, a lifeboat is being pulled in great haste by a crew of seamen across a high dune to the ocean's edge. Beyond the crest of the dune a lifeline has been set up. Several men and women look on, silhouetted against the sky, their clothing blowing in the wind. Except for one red scarf in the background, the coloring is restricted to shades of gray, tinted slightly with green and buff in the dunes and blue in the sea and sky.
Homer sent The Wreck to the first "Carnegie International" in 1896. It won the Chronological Medal and a purchase prize of five thousand dollars. This award, unmatched by Carnegie Institute in subsequent years, was one of the most lucrative prizes bestowed upon any American artist of the time and was the highest price Homer received for a single work.