Summer Idyll

Cincinnati Art Museum pays homage to the season with paintings by Edward Henry Potthast.

A century or so ago, the Cincinnati painter captured seaside beauty at its best: Children immersed in play, building sandcastles and joyously splashing around in waves. Couples soaking up rays in the form-fitting bathing suits that were all the rage. Families reveling in the sky-blue, cloudless bliss a day at the shore brings.

Through Sept. 8, the Cincinnati Art Museum is marking the season by presenting “Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast.” Comprising 91 works, the exhibition explores the life and work of the artist whom Julie Aronson, the museum’s curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings, calls the Queen City’s “first impressionist.”

To understand the beginnings of Potthast’s ultimate mastery of hue and light, Aronson explains, one must transcend time and return to the mid-19th century, when the artist’s family immigrated to the Ohio River town from Germany.

“Cincinnati was an extraordinary city, a true cultural enclave,” the curator says. “Many of the immigrants who settled here were artisans — including Potthast’s father, Henry, a cabinet maker. So, it was only natural that their sons become artists, too.”

In 1869, 11-year-old Henry began studying drawing at Cincinnati’s McMicken School of Design. At 16, he embarked on a series of apprenticeships with the city’s noted lithographers and started honing his eye for color and design. Potthast traveled to Munich and Paris, where he enrolled in classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the Académie Julian.

“The artist had a very, very long period of education,” Aronson says. “He took his time, partly because he needed to be gainfully employed.”

The curator describes Potthast’s early oils, including 1890’s “French Woman Reading” and “Sewing Girl” as being “three-dimensional solid drawings devoid of the independent brushwork” so evident in the impressionist style he’d become famous for.

Making the move to Manhattan in 1895, the painter augmented his income by producing illustrations for Harper’s, Scribner’s and Century Magazine. He also became captivated by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s riveting oils of the Spanish coast.

“Sorolla’s 1909 exhibition in New York City was a real art-world happening,” Aronson explains. “There were over 300 works in the show, and people swarmed to see it.”

Potthast embraced Sorolla’s style. Determined to emulate the topic, he left the sweltering metropolis behind to spend summers at Spring Lake, New Jersey; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Rockaway Beach on Long Island. Amid cool coastal breezes, the artist found his muse.

“As soon as he started doing these pictures,” Aronson explains, “they immediately garnered attention from both critics and museums.

“The paintings were so successful,” she adds, “that Potthast decided to stick with the subject matter.”

The artist’s repertoire also includes sweeping vistas of the Swiss Alps and the Grand Canyon. But it’s his beach scenes that have garnered legions of fans through the decades. In fact, the images elicit the same allure as when they debuted.

“One of the things I love most about Potthast’s painting is that he has a way of making it seem real,” Aronson reflects, citing “Afternoon Fun” as an example. In the 1915 oil, beachgoers huddle together for warmth as shadows appear to fall.

“You can,” the curator says, “almost feel the wind on your back.”

And therein lies the beauty.

“Through his composition techniques and his feeling for luminosity and air,” Aronson says, “you are in the experience.”

Cincinnati Art Museum
953 Eden Park, Cincinnati 45202
Hours: Tues.–Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: Free