Americans at Leisure

The Art of Edward Henry Potthast

by Stephen May

Although one might think from his reputation that life was a day at the beach for Edward Henry Potthast, he actually did not begin his familiar depictions of seashore activities until he was in his fifties. Justly celebrated for his bright, sun-filled, freely brushed renditions of carefree leisure moments, particularly beach scenes in the early twentieth century, Potthast (1857–1927) occupies a special place in American art history. No one has better evoked memories of happy family seaside vacations and summer fun than this vigorous Impressionist. The sparkle of Potthast’s style and his loose, painterly application of clear vivid hues suggest that he is America’s finest painter of beach scenes and the joys of carefree childhood. Less well-known are his landscapes, genre scenes, portraits and nudes. Among the diverse subjects he painted were humble Brittany and Dutch peasants, farm hands and cattle, fishermen, the coast of Maine and the Grand Canyon. He excelled at oil painting, watercolor, pastel, ink, drawing in pencil and printmaking.

The breadth and depth of this appealing artist’s oeuvre were recently documented in a retrospective, “Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast (June 6–September 8, 2013),” at his hometown museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum. Organized by Julie Aronson, Cincinnati’s curator of American painting, sculpture and drawings, the exhibition comprised over ninety works that demonstrated the artist’s great technical skills. The accompanying catalogue is excellent.1 Potthast, says Aronson, “was a master at making his works seem effortless—but to achieve their sense of immediacy required considerable finesse.”2

Potthast was born in Cincinnati to a working-class German immigrant family; his father was a cabinetmaker. Edward began working as a lithographer at age sixteen and continued to support himself as a freelance lithographer for several decades. But he had higher goals. “From the start,” says Aronson, “Potthast’s driving ambition was to become a painter.”3 For twelve years at night, beginning in 1870, he received formal art training in classes at the McMicken School of Design, which offered a traditional curriculum of drawing and copy work, preparing students for careers in academic history painting.

By 1882, Potthast had saved enough money to study painting in Europe, first briefly in Antwerp, then in Munich, where he picked up the fluent, dark-toned approach popular there, and finally at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he absorbed the dissolution of form, flickering, spontaneous brushwork, high-keyed palette and interest in the fleeting everyday world of Impressionism. His conversion to the latter style was facilitated by the mediating influence of skilled Boston painter Robert Vonnoh, who was experimenting in France with outdoor painting in bright sunlight, using high-keyed colors and building up impasto on his canvases. In the late 1880s, Potthast gained recognition for two versions of his earliest painting—of a young, barefoot Breton girl in a sunbonnet gathering poppies. Reflecting the evolution of his art, the first — A Breton Girl — is solid and academic; the second — Young Breton Girl, Study (Sunshine) — is sun-drenched, with bright Impressionist colors. Both are dated 1889.

Back in Cincinnati, Potthast was hailed as the city’s first Impressionist. Although his gallery shows drew mixed reviews, he became a major player in the city’s art life, encouraging acceptance of Impressionism with a variety of works in which he sought to develop a personal, recognizable style. Potthast was a product of the extraordinary art community that flourished in nineteenth-century Cincinnati. He was a friend of fellow townsmen Robert Blum, Joseph DeCamp, Frank Duveneck and John H. Twachtman, all of whom made their mark in American art. Frustrated with his hometown’s reluctance to embrace his oeuvre, Potthast looked to New York, America’s art capital, for his

Young Breton Girl, Study (Sunshine), 1889, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohiofuture. Described as short, shy, cheerful, charming, quiet, self-effacing and for-mal, Potthast “never developed the confidence in his work that his colleagues believed he should,” observes Aronson.4He often modestly refused to send to exhibitions pictures that others admired but he deemed unworthy. This career-long reticence inhibited public appreciation of his achievements. Moving to New York in the mid-1890s, Potthast settled in the Gainsborough Building at 222 West 59th Street, where he remained until his death. Initially he worked as a freelance lithographer for magazines like Century and Scribner’s, and began to exhibit at the National Academy of Design, the American Water Color Society and other organizations, winning numerous prizes. A sociable man, he played an active part in the city’s lively art milieu.

Determined to establish his reputation as a watercolor artist, Potthast initially focused on that medium, showing his affinity for day and nocturnal scenes around New York City. Painted with characteristic clear colors and vivacious brushstrokes, his views of Central Park are especially appealing, with picknickers and horseback riders in verdant fields, contrasted with the towering shapes of Manhattan’s buildings looming in the background. His watercolors included carefully composed, light-filled landscapes and strong marinescapes created with quick, powerful strokes and an illustrator’s eye for telling details. Some, such as Wood Interior (1895), combined the intimacy and love of nature of the Barbizon and Munich artists with the high-keyed palette, lively brushstrokes and sun-splashed ambience of the Impressionists. It is a veritable symphony in nature.Looking across the Grand Canyon, c. 1910, Pheonix Art Museum, Pheonix, Arizona

Frequent summers in picturesque Gloucester stimulated Potthast’s Tonalist-inflected leanings in watercolors, marked by subdued colors and evocative, moody atmospheres. His pleasure in the company of Cape Ann’s large, lively and convivial art colony is reflected in his spontaneous and cheerful Sketching on the Beach (1896), quickly and confidently composed with trans-parent washes over blue pencil marks. As a Gloucester friend recalled, “I went to Bass Rock beach, and there were more artists there at work than bathers in or out of the water.”5 Around the same time, he turned out highly finished, more academic watercolors like Wheelwright Shop (c. 1900). With the floor littered with wood scraps, tools lying around, cluttered workbench and wheels in various stages of manufacture, this powerful watercolor reflects the hard labor involved in making and repairing wheels for horse-drawn carriages and carts. The demand for well-crafted, lively watercolors kept Potthast busy to the end of his career. “He remained confident, consistent, and seemingly unaffected by progressive, headline-grabbing developments in the medium,” says art historian Carol Troyen. “While never adventurous, his watercolors epitomized what had come to be regarded as quality in the medium.”6 Overall, Potthast produced pictures that, although not as compelling as those of Homer, Hassam and Prendergast, “were handsome and well crafted,” according to Troyen. “They sold well, if for modest prices, and were reviewed with respect.”7

An enthusiastic traveler, Potthast eagerly accepted an invitation from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to accompany Thomas Moran on a painting excursion to the Grand Canyon in 1910. Potthast’s penchant for dramatic vistas led to gorgeously hued oils, such as Grand Canyon and Looking across the Grand Canyon (both 1910), which convey not only the spectacular topography of the scene, but its breathtaking, otherworldly contrasts of color—the former with misty, rainbow-hued conditions; the latter in crisp, clear light. The New York Times reported that “these portraits of wild nature have a finer quality than the portraits of dancing children and racing bathers.”8 Meanwhile, inspired by Homer’s subject matter, if not his technique, Potthast for years created oils with comparable views of hunters in boats and rugged fishermen gazing out to sea (also reminiscent of Provincetown stalwart Charles W. Hathorne) or struggling to haul in a catch, as in Struggle for Existence (Struggle for the Catch) from c. 1909. Forays to Maine in the early 1920s led to a series of watercolors and oils focusing on Homer-like images of the rocky coast, often with solitary figures turned away from the viewer and silhouetted by moonlight, as in At the Summit (At the Summit, Moonlight Night) from c. 1924. In 1998, New York Times critic Grace Glueck called this moody oil “a stunner, with three small figures perched on a ledge silhouetted against a background of glowing blue-white clouds, the whole dominated by a sky suffused with the brilliant blue of early dusk.”9

Potthast’s oils featuring rocky shores confronting white-capped seas, like Sea Gulls (c. 1915), painted in Ogunquit, and A Rocky Coast (c. 1920) and others on Monhegan Island are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s similarly rugged depictions of Monhegan’s rocky coast, 1916–1919. They underscore Potthast’s recognition of the eternal power of the turbulent sea and equally enduring resilience of obdurate rocks. It seems likely that Potthast’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of the seashore as a subject by a 1909 blockbuster exhibition at New York’s Hispanic Society of America of the free-flowing brushwork, vivid colors and bold shapes of sun-drenched beach vignettes by Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863–1923). Potthast subsequently incorporated aspects of Sorolla’s bravura style into his own works.

In Potthast’s mature years, the emphasis on leisure time made beach resorts enormously popular subjects. Ordinary Americans enjoying their day in the sun at seashores was a natural subject for both Impressionists and their Ashcan School compatriots. Maurice Prendergast, with his densely populated, tapestry-like compositions, and William Glackens, with his high-keyed beach views, preceded Potthast in pursuing this theme. “But no one,” Aronson points out, “devoted as much energy to the theme or became so associated with it as Potthast.”10 Potthast’s subjects are not William Merritt Chase’s refined family members on dunes in Shinnecock, nor Hassam’s chaste beachgoers, nor Bellows’s skinny, lower-class kids diving off city docks. They are middle-class youngsters and parents frolicking on often-crowded public beaches. “Potthast, himself, came from a working-class family,” notes Aronson, “and, although of a reserved temperament, he was apparently comfortable among all sorts of people.”11 Around 1914, Potthast’s sojourns up and down the New England coast, as well as Coney Island and Rockaway Beach, led him to paint the oil and watercolor beach scenes upon which his reputation rests. In his mature style, characterized by Sorolla-like verve and American realism, he applied the thick paint of Munich and the light and color of Paris. Starting from his New York studio in overlooking Central Park, Potthast found his greatest subject matter: his world became one big resort. Women and children strolling through parks, notably Central Park, along with those escaping summer heat at Long Island and New England beaches became his trademark, a reflection of the carefree happiness of the American middle-class around the turn of the century.

Little recognized is the fact that Potthast did not take on this specialty until he was well into his fifties, late in his full and long career. His obsession with the subject thereafter resulted in literally hundreds of paintings of beach subjects. A childless bachelor, Potthast was especially drawn to the carefree innocence of children at the beach—a highly marketable subject—often teamed with mothers in affectionate vignettes. In a similar vein, in Brother and Sister (c. 1915), a nursemaid holding an infant watches siblings wading in the water. The exuberant Little Girl in Green (1915–18) seems to be having the time of her life scooping up water at the shore.

Brother and Sister, c. 1915, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio

In the 1915 An Impression (Sunday on the Beach), he applied pure watercolor technique, in “bright color and emphatic brushwork reminiscent of [Maurice] Prendergast’s seashore views,” notes Troyen. Potthast’s version in watercolor, like his oil interpretation, “sparkles with energy and light,” observes Troyen.12 In another standout, A Holiday (c. 1915), the artist captured the sheer exhilaration of children at play at the water’s edge, unsupervised and engaged in a variety of seashore activities. A dreamy slice of a perfect world, the image “enhances the fairylike appearance of the children, who seem to float across the picture in their gleaming white pinafores,” observes Aronson. “The delicate transitions between colors suggest the fragility of childhood, an enchanted time of life.”13 Potthast draws viewers into scenes like this by bringing us near the foreground group and continuing the composition beyond them. Clearly, the artist’s ability to express the carefree pleasures of childhood appealed to viewers’ nostalgia. As a New York Times critic observed of Potthast’s one-man exhibition at New York’s Milch Galleries in 1918:

What especially differentiates Mr. Potthast’s work is the soundness and sweetness of the mental attitude expressed by it. The children who are dancing on the beaches are wholesome little creatures with exuberant spirits and naturally rhythmic emotions….The compositions are always happy garlands of color with spacious backgrounds but the sense of arrangement is very successfully avoided.14

In his “grown up” pictures, Potthast depicted adults playing and socializing at the beach. Two newly liberated young women, wearing form-fitting swimwear and gaily patterned robes, converse animatedly as they stride briskly along the beach in Blonde and Brunette (1920–27). Their smiles reflect the perfect day they and swimmers in the surf behind them are enjoying. Adults, mainly women, frolicking and bobbing in the surf, epitomized by Surf Bathing (c. 1924), constitute another favorite Potthast theme. This carefully composed group portrait, involving close attention to color relationships, the animated poses of the bathers and frothing waves, is “about physical enjoyment, about the return to the unfettered pleasures of childhood,” observes Aronson.15 While Potthast sometimes painted crowds on the beach, he never depicted the congestion and traffic at tourists sites, as did John Sloan in Gloucester. Rather, in works like A Sailing Party (Going for a Sail) from c. 1924, he focused on shoreline recreation. Here, a sun-drenched group wearing vivid orange, yellow, green and white buck a stiff breeze to launch their green boat into the blue sea.

Struggle for Existence, c. 1909, Private CollectionFavoring a variety of seaside idylls, Potthast was highly productive in the final thirteen years of his life, albeit his work was repetitious and uneven. But Aronson emphasizes: “No two compositions are completely alike, a remark-able accomplishment given their considerable number. Not only did Potthast alter the compositions but he also modified his techniques to suit the expressive temper he desired for each work.”16 The overall result are works that are distinctive and unmistakably by Potthast. For all their seeming spontaneity, Potthast’s Impressionistic beach scenes were largely the product of keen on-site observation and hard, disciplined work in his studio. His modesty and low-key approach to his work meant that, for years, he was content to participate in the same round of exhibitions at a variety of established venues. Praise from critics about his normality and optimistic outlook, expressed in skilled draftsmanship, vibrant colors and appealing compositions, seemed to be sufficient acclaim for the reticent artist.

Potthast never engaged in the self-promotion that would have gained him greater recognition during his lifetime. Since his death, his reputation has steadily grown as curators and collectors have come to appreciate his bright, happy images, executed in a comfortable and personal Impressionist style. Whether painting figural studies, genre scenes, landscapes, cityscapes or especially seashore views, Edward Henry Potthast bequeathed a trove of images in a distinctive, American Impressionist idiom of enduring appeal. As one authority recently observed, Potthast’s understanding of light, tone, form, gesture and motion was made complete by observation. As a result, his best-painted glimpses of bygone days are not flattened and simplistically nostalgic notes, but ring true as colored windows to universal remembrance—as a collage of the nontheatrical yet deeply felt moments that make up much of human experience.17 To a large degree, the enduring popularity of Potthast’s seaside imagery is tied to the extended association of the setting with joy, happiness and the carefree pleasures of childhood. Those sentiments are sparklingly expressed through his bravura brushwork, beautiful color schemes and passion for the effects of sunlight. Viewing a Potthast, one feels the breeze, the dazzling sunshine and the tangy salt air—appealing and lasting imagery to savor for a very long time. In the final analysis, it was Potthast’s “ability to capture in a picture all that the public adores about the seaside that secured his legacy,” concludes Aronson.18

Notes

1. 1. The 240-page, extensively illustrated exhibition catalogue contains perceptive, infor-mative essays by Aronson, Troyen, fashion curator Cynthis Amneus and conservator Per Knutas. Published by the Cincinnati Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London, it sells for $65, hardcover, and is bound to be the authoritative source about Potthast for a long time.

2. Undated news release, Cincinnati Art Museum.

3. Julie Aronson, editor, Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast (Cincinnati: Cincinnati Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London), p. 17.

4. Ibid., p. 30.

5. Ibid., p. 224, quoting from Cincinnati Times Star (September 14, 1916).

6. Ibid., p. 44.

7. Ibid., p. 34.

8. Ibid., p. 219, quoting from “Paintings by Edward H. Potthast,” New York Times (January 28, 1923).

9. “Edward Henry Potthast: ‘American Impressionist,’” New York Times (May 29, 1998), page unknown.

10.  Op. cit., Aronson, p. 51.

11.  Ibid., p. 53.

12.  Ibid., p. 41.

13.  Ibid., p. 56.

14.  Ibid., p. 62, quoting from “Exhibitions of Paintings in Great Variety: Art at Home and Abroad,” New York Times (December 1, 1918).

15.  Ibid., p. 58.

16.  Ibid., p. 61.

17.  James M. Keny, “Into the Light: The Art of Edward Potthast,” Timeline (April–May 1991), p. 28.

18.  Op. cit., Aronson, p. 62.

 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1