CINCINNATI, OHIO — Famed for his bright, sun-filled, freely brushed renditions of carefree leisure moments, particularly beach scenes in the early Twentieth Century, Edward Henry Potthast (1857–1927) occupies a special place in American art history. No one has better conjured up nostalgic memories of joyous 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 mark him as America’s finest painter of beach scenes.
Less well-known are his landscapes, genre scenes, portraits and nudes. Among diverse subjects he painted were humble Brittany and Dutch peasants, farm hands and cattle and fishermen on the coast.
The breadth and depth of this appealing artist’s oeuvre are documented in a retrospective, “Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast,” on view at his hometown museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum, through September 8. Organized by Julie Aronson, curator of American painting, sculpture and drawings, the exhibition comprises more than 90 works that demonstrate the artist’s great technical skills in oil painting, watercolor, pastel and printmaking.
“Potthast was among the first artists to introduce Impressionism in Cincinnati,” says Aronson. “He was a master at making his works seem effortless — but to achieve their sense of immediacy required considerable finesse.”
Born in Cincinnati to a working-class German immigrant family, Potthast began working as a lithographer at age 16 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.” To that end, 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.
Between 1882 and 1889 Potthast studied 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 Académie Julian in Paris, where he acquired the feathery brushwork, high-keyed palette, broken colors and interest in the fleeting everyday world of Impressionism. In the late 1880s, he gained recognition for two versions of his earliest painting, of a young, barefoot Breton girl in a sunbonnet gathering poppies; the first solid and academic, the second with more brilliant Impressionist colors.
Back in Cincinnati, Potthast was hailed as the city’s first Impressionist, but his gallery shows drew mixed reviews. He became, nevertheless, 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. Frustrated with his hometown’s reluctance to embrace his oeuvre, Potthast looked to New York, America’s art capital, for his future.
Invariably described as short, shy, cheerful, charming, quiet, self-effacing and formal, Potthast “never developed the confidence in his work that his colleagues believed he should,” observes Aronson. He often modestly refused to be included in exhibitions and his career-long reticence inhibited public appreciation of his achievements.
Moving to New York in the mid-1890s, Potthast worked as a freelance illustrator for magazines like Century and Scribner’s, and began to exhibit at the National Academy of Design, the American Watercolor Society and other organizations, winning numerous prizes. As a watercolorist, he created images that “were handsome and well crafted,” according to art historian Carol Troyen. “They sold well, if for modest prices, and were reviewed with respect.”
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,” 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.
Frequent summers in picturesque Gloucester stimulated Potthast’s Tonalist-inflected leanings in watercolors marked by subdued colors and evocative, moody atmospheres. Around the same time, he turned out highly finished, more academic images like “Wheelwright Shop,” with its wood shavings-covered floor and cluttered workbench suggesting the hard work of 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 Troyen. “While never adventurous, his watercolors epitomized what had come to be regarded as quality in the medium.”
An enthusiastic traveler, Potthast eagerly accepted an invitation from the Santa Fe Railway to accompany Thomas Moran on a painting excursion to the Grand Canyon in 1910. Potthast’s penchant for dramatic vistas led to a gorgeously hued oil, “Looking Across the Grand Canyon,” which conveys not only the spectacular topography of the scene, but its breathtaking, otherworldly contrasts of color.
Meanwhile, inspired by Homer’s subject matter, if not his technique, Potthast for years painted in oil comparable views of hunters in boats and rugged fishermen gazing out to sea (also reminiscent of Provincetown stalwart Charles W. Hawthorne) or struggling to haul in a catch, as in “Struggle for Existence (Struggle for the Catch).”
Forays to Maine in the early 1920s led to a series of watercolors and oils focusing on the rocky coast, often with solitary figures turned away from the viewer and silhouetted by moonlight, as in “At the Summit.” His oils featuring rocky shores confronting white-capped seas, like “Sea Gulls,” painted in Ogunquit and others on Monhegan Island, are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s similarly rugged depictions of Monhegan’s rocky coast, 1916–1919.
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. 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 rather static, tapestrylike 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.”
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 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 Twentieth Century.
Little recognized is the fact that Potthast came to this specialty well into his 50s, late in his full and long career. His obsession with the subject thereafter resulted in literally hundreds of paintings of beach subjects.
Favoring a variety of seaside idylls, Potthast was highly productive in the final 13 years of his life, albeit his work was repetitious and uneven. But as Aronson emphasizes, “No two compositions are completely alike, a remarkable 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.” The overall result are works that are distinctive and unmistakably by Potthast.
Potthast rarely dated his paintings, only occasionally gave them site-specific titles, and mostly featured a sweep of people, sand, sea and sky. By using inelegant poses and croppings, he gave his pictures the immediacy of snapshots, and captured the rambunctious nature of working-class crowds.
In “An Impression (Sunday on the Beach),” 1915, 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.
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,” a nursemaid holding an infant watches siblings wading in the water. “Little Girl in Green” seems to be having the time of her life scooping up water on the shorefront.
In another standout, “A Holiday,” the artist captured the sheer exuberance 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.” Potthast drew viewers into scenes like this by bringing them near the foreground group and continuing the composition beyond them.
Adults, mainly women, frolicking and bobbing in the surf, epitomized by “Surf Bathing,” constitute another favorite Potthast theme. This carefully composed group portrait, involving close attention to color relationships, animated poses of the bathers and frothing waves, is “about physical enjoyment, about the return to the unfettered pleasures of childhood,” observes Aronson.
For all their seeming spontaneity, Pott-hast’s Impressionistic beach scenes were largely the product of 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 for his “normality…excellence of his draftsmanship…soundness and sweetness of mental attitude,” and being “just a good painter,” seemed to be sufficient acclaim for the reticent artist.
To some extent, 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. Also keys are his expressive brushwork, beautiful color schemes and passion for the effects of sunlight. The 240-page catalog contains perceptive, informative essays by Aronson, Troyen, Amneus and conservator Per Knutas. Published by the Cincinnati Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London, it sells for $65, hardcover.
The Cincinnati Art Museum is at 953 Eden Park Drive. For information, www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org or 513-639-2995.