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Monday, June 29, 2009

Summertime and Edward Potthast


I don't know what it is about summertime, but every summer, I get all wrapped up in the paintings of Edward Henry Potthast.  I love his work.  I can't stop looking at it and studying his brushstrokes.  My own work has been greatly influenced by this artist.  His paintings make me happy.  There is a brightness and joy that can be felt from his paintings. Although my favorite artists were the impressionists - Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, Degas - it is the work of this American Impressionist, Edward Potthast, that I believe has had one of the greatest impacts on my own body of work.  And so, I would like to tell you a bit about this artist whom I love ...


Edward Henry Potthast is best known for his sunny beach scenes, filled with sparkling surf and high-keyed subjects such as balloons, hats, flowing clothing, children at play, and umbrellas. He was born to a family of artisans in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 10, 1857.  At the tender age of 12, he began studying art at Cincinnati's new McMicken School of Design and continued his studies there off and on for over a decade.


Potthast went overseas in 1881 and studied at the Royal Academy in Munich.  There, he studied with the American-born instructor Carl Marr (von Marr, after 1909), who was known for his adroit handling of light and shadow in realistically rendered works. Potthast completed his European tour with a visit to Paris, where he studied at the Academie Julian for about a month before returning to Cincinnati in 1885 where he began to earn a living as a lithographer. 


As an artist myself, I understand how one can become influenced by our teachers, and master artists whom we admire.  We tend to gravitate to a certain style of work and attempt to emmulate the great masters of the past.  At this time in his life, Potthast was influenced by the Munich School, which was, in turn, influenced by the painting tradition of the Dutch.  He painted landscapes and interiors, displaying sound draftsmanship and composition, solid unbroken brushstrokes, and a use of dark tones, something that would change in his later years.


He must have become bored with Cincinnati, because he returned to Paris in 1886 where he studied with Fernand Cormon and, possibly, with Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. In 1889, he met American Robert Vonnoh and Irishman Roderic O' Conor, both of whom were landscape painters working at Grcz.  It was their work, and the work of others at the Grcz colony that would have the strongest impact on Potthast and his palette.  It was these artist's cool-toned, Impressionist paintings with scumbled surfaces that would ultimately dictate the work that we recognize as his finest body of work.  


Potthast did return to Cincinnati, but with him he carried canvases filled with light and cool bright colors. He had discovered himself through Impressionism. One of the paintings he brought back with him was Sunshine, 1889 (Cincinnati Art Museum), a painting of a girl in an outdoor setting which had been exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1889. When the exhibition entitled "Light Pictures" opened in 1894 at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Potthast was the only American artist included in the show, and of course, that was because Impressionism had its beginnings in Paris in the 1860s and most of the work in this exhibit would have its roots from there.


Even though he enjoyed modest success in his Ohio hometown, Potthast made the decision to leave Cincinnati in 1895 and settle in New York City. He set up a studio for himself and began to earn a living fulfilling illustration commissions for publications such as Scribner's, Harper's, and Century.  He continued to paint in watercolors and oils and exhibited his work at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1896, and at the National Academy of Design in 1897. He won the National Academy's Thomas B. Clarke award for best figure painting in 1899, and in that same year he was elected as an Associate of the academy. Potthast was made a full academician in 1906.


It was after he settled in New York that Potthast painted scenes of people enjoying leisurely holidays, summers, and weekends at the beach with their families and children.  


Potthast spent the summer months in any one of a number of seaside art colonies, including Gloucester, Rockport, Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Ogunquit and Monhegan Islands, and the shores of Maine. He loved the beach so much that although he resided in New York, he would journey out on fair days to Coney Island or Far Rockaway with his easel, paintbox, and a few panels.


An extremely private person, Potthast never married.  He was close to his nephew and namesake, Edward Henry Potthast II (1880-1941), who also became an artist. Potthast died alone in his New York studio on March 9, 1927.


The paintings of Edward Henry Potthast are represented in public collections across the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Art Institute of Chicago; Cincinnati Art Museum; Georgia Museum of Art, Athens; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.


I love Potthast's beach scenes of children and their families. Through his artwork, he captured the essence  of children at play. Although he never had children of his own, and was a somewhat private person, he clearly enjoyed the company of children and their families and depicting them in his artwork.  What I enjoy most about his paintings, is that he was a true impressionist. 


He placed notes of color on his canvas to indicate light and shadow so that you can almost feel the heat from the sun.  He doesn't place much emphasis on faces or details, but rather, creates an indication of the subjects in his paintings enough that we understand the scene and we are drawn into the painting.  I could stare at a Potthast painting for hours and never tire of it.


Potthast is one of the most recognized beach scene painters by any American artist today and if you want one of his wonderful works you'll have to have deep pockets.  For now, I'll have to settle for a book gallery of his paintings to satisfy my summertime Potthast desires.




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