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Monday, June 22, 2015

Edward Henry Potthast

Umbrellas and the Sun, 1887, Edward Potthast
Edward Potthast Self-portrait
On this first full day of summer, and during the next two or three months, people all over the northern hemisphere of this world will be heading toward the beach. I suppose those in the southern hemisphere, where summer means a cooling trend, will be heading from the beach. That being the case, I suppose the work of the American artist, Edward Henry Potthast, may revive pleasant memories. This turn-of-the-century impressionist painted primarily men, women, and children enjoying the salt, sand, sea, and sun trying not to overdo any of the above. His brilliantly colored Umbrellas and the Sun (above) from 1887 would seem to indicate Potthast wasn't the only artist aiming to capture the colorful fun and games of being near the water, but out of it, and out of the sun. I like beaches, in theory, though it's more the relaxing ambience, the warmth, the breeze, and the beauty they provide than actually getting wet under such circumstances. In Potthast's late 19th-century beach paintings, that seems to have been the case with many of his subjects. Notice how few of his figures above are actually in the water.

In the Garden 2, Edward Henry Potthast
Edward Potthast was born in 1847, quite a long way from any beaches--Cincinnati, Ohio. The Queen City has a shoreline--the Ohio River--but not what you could reasonably call a beach. When I lived there for a couple years back in the mid-1960s, there was Coney Island, which wasn't really an island, and didn't, in any case, have a beach. The park is still there, 129 years old, and even today, has the largest swimming pool (over two acres) in North America, next to a decent, old-fashioned (but updated) amusement park. Potthast would have been familiar with it, though there's no indication he painted there. He left Cincinnati for New York City in 1895, giving up a career as a lithographer in favor of painting. His In the Garden 2 (above), though undated, judging from the fashionable gardening apparel of its time, would seem to suggest a painting from his Ohio period.

Standing Room Only, 1898, Edward Potthast
The Village Carpenter, 1898,
Edward Potthast
Potthast began his art training around 1880 studying under Thomas Satterwhite Noble, a retired Confederate Army captain, before moving on to Paris where he studied with Thomas Couture. He later studied at the Royal Academy in Munich with the American-born painter, Carl Marr. After returning to Cincinnati in 1885, he resumed his studies with Noble. Apparently dissatisfied, Potthast went back to Paris for additional study, honing his impressionist style and skills at their source. In returning to Cincinnati, he packed up for New York, never to go back. (He died in 1927.) However Potthast's The Village Carpenter (left) dating from around 1898, would appear to have its roots in Ohio. It bears little resemblance to New York City at the turn of the century. The same could be said for Potthast's Standing Room Only (above) dating from the same period, which could also be a reminiscent work with its distinctly continental look, well after his Paris studies.

Summer Vacation, Edward Potthast. New York can be sweltering in the summer.
The beach appears crowded but the water is often quite cool (low 70s) in summer.
The Red Bonnet, Edward Potthast
Whatever the case, there's no doubt that the setting for his beach scenes was that of Long Island, perhaps even the original Coney Island (also not an island). Potthast's Summer Vacation (above) would appear to have been painted well into the early 1900s, judging by the relatively modern bathing attire. However, his Red Bonnet (right) seems to be much earlier. In appraising such beachfront modesty today, it's not hard to see why bathers sometimes doffed it all in favor of nude bathing (skinny-dipping). Of course such au naturel pursuits necessarily demanded more secluded locales far from the crowds gathered at New York's public beaches. Potthast's In the Summertime (below) records this (usually male) solution to urban heat waves in the hot and muggy days before air conditioning.

In the Summertime, Edward Potthast
Nude, Edward Potthast
As In the Summertime appears to suggest, not all of Potthast's bathers took to the beach. Perhaps reminiscent of his childhood in Ohio, local streams with their "swimming holes" were often more inviting and less "confining." Potthast's Nude (right) bears witness to the fact that nude bathing was not an exclusively male pastime. By the same token, not all of Potthast's shoreline paintings involved swimming. His Summer Pleasures (below) speaks to the spell cast by the ocean upon those who live near it. Though there appears to be swimmers in the distance, merely getting ones feet wet is often nearly refreshing. Also, the beach need not be sandy. Some of Potthast's seaside works speak to the mesmerizing effect of waves upon rugged rocks. Potthast's Seascape Moonlight, (below, left) stands apart from most of the artist's work in its lonely, nocturnal appeal.

Summer Pleasures, Edward Potthast.
This would appear to be a relatively late work from the 1920s.
Seascape Moonlight, Edward Potthast
Edward Potthast was undoubtedly a rather busy man during the summer months, which brings me to wonder what he painted during the winter. Perhaps he worked from summertime color sketches or perhaps he painted snow scenes (I found one or two). I'm guessing that he also utilized photos in composing his paintings. Beaches and their bathers are far too hyperactive to favor most artists lengthy drawing routines, even at their rapid best. Potthast also seems to have traveled well away from New York City in that I also found several paintings of the Grand Canyon, one of which, Grand Canyon Trees Rocks (below), is precisely the type painting had hoped to do based upon photos taken last year when we visited the Colorado River's big ditch. My sunset photos were not that great and any sunrise photos would have demanded a wakeup call totally out of the question while on vacation. I was dismayed to find that minus the special lighting, the canyon was distressingly monochromatic. Of course, unlike Potthast, I'm no impressionist.

Grand Canyon Trees Rocks, Edward, Potthast


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