By the turn of the century, prosperity had enabled Americans to enjoy increased leisure time and extended vacations, even for the middle class. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Edward Henry Potthast embraced American leisure time as a central subject. Among his favorites were outings at the shore. In Playing in the Surf, Potthast captures a carefree summer moment and adeptly renders the color, light, and rhythm of the seaside environment.
Potthast's home on West 59th Street in Manhattan allowed him to easily travel to the city's crowded resorts of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. He completed numerous seaside watercolors of these beaches, before eventually moving on to oil, painting his exquisite small panels of crowds at the beach. The vivid color and mastery of composition in his paintings speak to his success as a painter. In one of the most effervescent of his larger oil paintings, Playing in the Surf, Potthast is able to incorporate beach goers frolicking in the waves. By choosing a vibrant palette, Potthast imbues this work with a lively and appealing character. The radiant blues and greens of the sea are highlighted by the crisp white caps of the waves. The spray of the surf tosses playfully around the carefree subjects who are enjoying the pleasures of the seashore. The water extends to all four sides of the canvas, giving the viewer a sense of the unlimited expanse of the shore.
Critics in Potthast's day applauded his considerable skill and the relaxed naturalism of his compositions. For example, a reviewer of an exhibition of the artist's paintings at Milch Galleries in December 1918 wrote: "Mr. Potthast is not to be labeled with any of the popular tags. He is just a good painter, extremely interested in his picture, which is apt to be a picture of light and color and spontaneous movement embodied in children and young people at play in the open air. He is rather impatient of detail. Faces bore him so mostly he leaves them out, or rather he makes them merely a blot of warm color in sunlight or luminous shadow. There is no fine drawing of detail anywhere but his construction is as right as a trivet; his figures stand as they should, and show real power in their loosely articulated forms...What especially differentiates Mr. Potthast's work is the soundness and sweetness of the mental attitude expressed by it...The compositions always are happy, garlands of color with spacious backgrounds, but the sense of arrangement is very successfully avoided. The spectator is left to the simple bliss of knowing what he likes without being challenged to explain to himself why he likes it." ("Exhibition of Paintings in Great Variety," The New York Times, December 1, 1918, p. 77) Playing in the Surf illustrates the brilliance of Potthast's Impressionist technique and extols the beauty and sanctuary of a day at the seashore