In A Summer Afternoon Edward Henry Potthast masterfully captures the blissful spirit of seaside holidays with his depiction of families relaxing and playing in the sand along the 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 burgeoning art center in the Midwest. In 1869, at the age of twelve, he became a charter student at Cincinnati's new McMicken School of Design and studied there for over a decade. Like many American artists, Potthast also traveled extensively to further his career. In 1882, he spent time in Munich, Antwerp and Paris. Through the Munich School's bold style of depicting tone and atmosphere, Potthast learned to work vigorously with paint applied directly onto the canvas, and to increase his sensitivity to form. 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 of Grèz-sur-Loing, France, which was undoubtedly the most influential in the development of his oeuvre. "When in Grèz," notes the art historian William Gerdts, "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." (Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France 1865-1915, Evanston, Illinois, 1992, p. 67)
By the 1910s, Potthast established his studio on West 59th Street in New York City, in proximity to the crowded resorts of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. The seashore lent itself to a bold Impressionist treatment; Potthast captured the motion of the surf, children playing, and the casual poses of people at leisure called for Potthast's quick, animated style. In one of the most effervescent and successful of these compositions, A Summer Afternoon, Potthast uses a low horizon line to accentuate the vastness of the cloud-filled sky. The horizontal band of sandy shore is filled with colorfully dressed women and children. These dashes of interlocking colors and forms typify the artist's creative, Impressionist style through the use of broad and direct brushwork.
All of Potthast's artistic devices come together in A Summer Afternoon to form a highly successful composition. J.W. Young, a long-time friend of the artist 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 Ran Gallery, Edward Henry Potthast: An American Painter, exhibition catalogue, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1994, p. 15) A Summer Afternoon is a classic example of Potthast's spontaneous painting style. The painting's quick brush strokes and vibrant palette perfectly encapsulate the essence of carefree leisure.