In Beach Scene Potthast masterfully encapsulates the blissful spirit of summer afternoons and seaside holidays through his two young models playing in the sand along the sparkling New York seashore. The artist presents this moment in time with a flourish of brushwork and high-keyed colors that capture the essence of the day.
Potthast was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, at a time when the city was a refuge for German immigrants and a burgeoning art center of the Midwest. "During the last quarter of the 19th century, Cincinnati was an important artistic center; the years between 1870 and 1890 were known as the 'Golden Age of Cincinnati.'" (D. Smith-Hurd, Edward Henry Potthast: An American Painter, exhibition catalogue, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1994, p. 5) Potthast began his formal studies during this time by enrolling as a charter student at the McMicken School of Design. He subsequently continued his studies locally at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and established himself in his native city as a lithographer and illustrator. The conservative nature of the art community eventually prompted Potthast to leave Cincinnati along with other local artists including John Twachtman and Frank Duveneck.
Like many Midwestern artists, Potthast traveled extensively to further his career as a painter. In 1882, the artist studied in Munich, Antwerp and Paris. Through the Munich School's bold style of depicting tone and atmosphere, Potthast learned to work vigorously with paint and to increase his sensitivity to light and apply broad and direct brushwork onto the canvas. The Barbizon painters influenced Potthast's interest in everyday life in contrast to the heroic or idealized subject common in his day. Yet it was Potthast's 1889 trip to the artist's colony in Grèz-sur-Loing, France, which was undoubtedly the most influential in the development of his oeuvre. "When in Grèz, Potthast 'fell under the influence of [Robert] Vonnoh and [Roderick] O'Connor [sic] and became a convert to the new school of Impressionism.' The results of Potthast's conversion to the new aesthetic were immediate, and were seen in the work Potthast brought back with him to his native town. He continued to paint with the bravura brushwork and colorism of Impressionism after he moved to New York in 1896, and it continued when he began to specialize in scenes of children and other bathers at Brooklyn beaches...which then became his specialty after 1910." (W.H. Gerdts, Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915, Evanston, Illinois, 1992, p. 67)
By the 1910s, Potthast had settled into his studio on West 59th Street in New York City. When not painting in Central Park, Potthast would set his sights on the beaches of Long Island and Brooklyn. The paintings and watercolors that resulted from his beach forays are the finest among the artist's body of work. This environment lent itself to a bold Impressionist treatment; the motion of the surf, children playing, and the casual poses of people on holiday necessitated Potthast's quick, animated style.
Beach Scene successfully combines Potthast's Impressionist and Realist sensibilities. "His paintings demonstrate an allegiance to two generations of American painters: American Impressionists and American Realists. These two groups are usually characterized as separate, but they share many significant experiences. Both groups of painters were trained in Paris and exhibited an enthusiasm for French painting. Both groups wanted to translate their European training into an American idiom." (Edward Henry Potthast: An American Painter, p. 7) In works such as Beach Scene, Potthast becomes a visual recorder of daily events, similar to the New York Realists George Bellows and John Sloan.
All of Potthast's artistic devices come together in Beach Scene to form a highly successful composition. J.W. Young, a long-time friend and Chicago art dealer, commented in 1920, "Potthast has found his greatest pleasure painting the happy groups which crowd the beaches near New York...Potthast does not paint individuals on the sands. He interprets the joy of folks on a care-free day. Whenever any artist does some one thing better than it has been done before, distinction is sure to come to him sooner or later. But when he does something that strikes the finest chord in human nature better than anyone else has done it, fame will mark that artist as one of her own." (as quoted in Edward Henry Potthast: An American Painter, p. 15)