Around the time of the turn of the century, great political, economic and social changes allowed for the possibility and acceptance of the five-day work week and extended vacations. For Edward Henry Potthast, this increase in leisure time supplied subject matter which he painted over and over again. Among his favorites were outings at the seashore. In Circle of Friends, Potthast has captured "the heat, color, and light, and the rhythm of the figures...and the water" to create "almost a snapshot of a moment at the seashore." (D. Smith-Hurd, Edward Henry Potthast, 1857-1927: An American Painter, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1994, n.p.)
Edward Potthast traveled extensively in Europe and studied at ateliers in Munich and Paris throughout the 1880s and 1890s. He arrived in New York from his native Cincinnati in 1895. Building on his occupation as a successful lithographer, Potthast pursued painting with a passion. Slowly he built his skills, learning to introduce more color by first becoming adept at watercolor. His subject matter gravitated towards popular subjects such as market scenes and coastal villages. In 1912, Potthast returned to Europe to study in Munich, Antwerp and Paris. Through the Munich School's precise rendering of color, tone and atmosphere, Potthast began to free up his technique, increase his sensitivity to light and apply broad and direct brushwork onto the canvas. In Paris, the Barbizon painters influenced Potthast's interest in everyday life which later became the chief subject in Potthast's color-infused Impressionist snapshots of life and leisure.
Upon his return to New York, Potthast traveled to the local seashore for inspiration. His home on West 59th Street was in close proximity to the crowded resorts of Brighton Beach and Coney Island. He completed numerous seaside watercolors, eventually moving on to oil, painting his exquisite small panels of crowds at the beach. The detail and mastery of composition in his paintings speak to his success as a painter. In one of the most effervescent of these compositions, Circle of Friends, Potthast is able to incorporate beach goers frolicking in the waves within the confines of his small panel. Four women press into the surf up to their hips, holding hands and swaying in a circle with childlike joie de vivre.
In 1915, when most of Potthast's beach themed works were first conceived, the nation was in the throes of World War I. Pleasures of a summer day were a ready balm from the struggles on the world's stage. As a result, his paintings and watercolors received great critical acclaim and honor, including the silver medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition for the present work. Potthast's art is not burdened with symbolism or complicated with theory. Rather, his body of work embodies simple beauty drawn from everyday life. "His is the view we sometimes get when we take our eyes off the asphalt and are struck by a sudden inner chord that says 'My God that's beautiful!'"(K.J. Moehl, Edward Henry Potthast, Peoria, Illinois, 1967, p. 6) Circle of Friends is a classic example of Potthast's spontaneous painting style. The painting's quick brush strokes and vibrant palette perfectly capture the essence of carefree leisure one can only find on a summer afternoon at the beach.