With the purchase of To the Rescue, Duncan Phillips fulfilled his wish to acquire a "fine oil of the Maine coast" by Homer. He wrote that the work "renounced story and sentiment altogether and let the mighty surf, which breaks tremendously on the rocks, work its will on the observer through the self-effacing agency of his recording brush
Phillips admired the work for what he termed its "dramatic suggestion," the primacy of aesthetic concerns over storytelling, which results in part from ambiguities both spatial and narrative. The setting, defined only by a generalized stretch of beach, can be read two ways: the running figure's position suggests a hill roughly parallel to the picture plane, while the striding women seem to walk across it, as if it were a flat promontory overlooking the sea. The sparse narrative avoids all direct description of the shipwreck rescue mission that is the painting's unseen subject, concentrating instead on three figures rushing to the scene of the disaster, isolated against a raging sea. The strength of the painting lies in the color scheme, which is limited to a few tonal values; as well as the severity of the confrontation between man and the elements that threaten to engulf him; and the simplified, sketchy quality.
The scene described in To the Rescue represents a drama of sea and land and the complementary roles of men and women—the former active, the latter passive. The urgency of the event is expressed only through the tense and uneasy movement of the running man. Homer ultimately returned to the shipwreck theme in a later painting in which the viewer finds the explicit narrative of the tragic accident hinted at in To the Rescue. The three figures on the beach are given a context. The man, himself a fisherman, is part of the community forming the rescue mission, and the women are a pair in the group of anxious observers on the dunes above the sea.