Review of Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast.

By Jane Durrell

The Cincinnati Art Museum has concocted a truly vacation-time exhibition with Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast. Concoct is the operative word here; the installation, in a manner of speaking, is the show, with a bonus at the end.

Eternal Summer fills the Museum’s second floor Gallery 234, directly above the dreary Schmidlapp Wing, spilling out to the balcony above the Great Hall for the opening presentation and onto the balcony rimming the entrance lobby at the close. This is a show with a beginning and an end, so should be traversed in the order given.

Edward Henry Potthast was Cincinnati-born (1857) and from an early age determined to become an artist. He reached that status by working in the lithograph trade, saving his money, studying in Cincinnati at the McMicken School of Design and studying abroad in Antwerp, in Munich, in Paris. He was single minded in his ambition, never married, was reported to be an affable fellow and by the time he died in 1927 had made a respectable name for himself, lived in New York City, and had accomplished what he set out to do, become an artist. The seaside scenes for which he is best known came late, 1914 and after, and are the heart of this exhibition.

But before Eternal Summer arrives at the beach it introduces us to earlier works ranged along the Great Hall balcony. Although his full-blown Post-Impressionist beach scenes do not show it, Potthast was perfectly able to portray faces: see the early etching, “The Workman,” also a charcoal drawing of a woman wearing a scarf, and the amusing watercolor “Standing Room Only,” in which opera patrons jostle to get a glimpse of the stage. In a rare self-portrait (1890) he looks both serious and wary.

A pastel of Fountain Square shows the familiar fountain in its original location, buildings rising in the space where it now resides, and several drawings indicate that Potthast was a well-trained draftsman. Two examples of his lithography, his means of support while fashioning himself into artist-per-se, show him putting that skill to use. “Dutch Interior,” painted in 1890 and presented to the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1894 by a group of forward thinking patrons, became the first American Impressionist work in the collection.

Moving on to Gallery 234, one sees what the exhibition is all about. It’s summer, we’re at the beach, the sun is high, spirits are high, and there’s a new appreciation of frolicking, to use a word of the period, at the seaside. The Industrial Revolution had made huge changes in society, taking workers from the out-of-doors to factories and offices, putting cash money into more hands, enlarging the middle class and making leisure time a concept for more people. The installation is the next thing to being at the shore.

A simulation of a boardwalk angles through the room and several mannequins display both men’s and women’s swim wear of the period. The earliest of the women’s bathing costumes, as they were called, suggests that the way to have a swim would be in essentially a knee length dress, shoes and hose. The hose would soon disappear, but a photograph from 1921 shows a man, a “beach censor,” measuring the length from hem of skirt to knee to be sure not an extra inch of bare skin is revealed. Costume curator Cynthia Amnéus was consultant for this addition to the show and contributed “A Brief History of Swimwear” to the catalogue.

Also occupying some of the center section of the gallery is a case containing the artist’s sketch books, and to the delight of at least one artist I know computer magic allows the visitor to page through these notebooks. Non-artists can enjoy this as well, but might not catch what my artist friend discovered, that Potthast was left-handed. The prevailing angle of his lines is opposite from her own right-handed ones. Intrigued, she questioned Eternal Summer’s organizer and curator Julie Aronson, the Museum’s curator of American paintings, sculpture and drawings. Aronson told her that actually Potthast was ambidextrous and enjoyed surprising people watching him as he sketched, at the beach and elsewhere, by switching from one hand to the other. His life was so completely in his art that finding amusement there as well is no real surprise.

The paintings, some in oils and some in watercolor, lend themselves to the organization of the central gallery. Relatively small in size, primarily horizontal, they are tucked into nooks that allow close observation. I would particularly suggest a long look at “A Rare Find” (1915), in which small brush strokes of subtle color make the beach and the clothing of the children shimmer in the sun. Few if any of the works are varnished, a tradition cast aside to enjoy the greater definition of individual colors when that protective coat is banished.

Again and again, we see children playing on the beach, adults relaxing, the wind blowing; faces have little distinction as the place is all. With some exceptions the horizon line is high, suggesting a more closed world than might be expected. These are the works by which Potthast is remembered, but there are some welcome exceptions even in this central gallery. “Wet Rocks,” a small oil study of rocks and sea composed by palette knife, is a rewarding exercise in form and color as are the related works “Promontory” and “Seagulls.”

Metaphorically shaking the sand from our shoes, we emerge to the entrance hall balcony and that’s where it gets interesting. Admit it, all those beach scenes, all those people seen mostly from the rear, all that unremitting sunlight – a little bit boring, yes? Despite the boardwalk and the mannequins? But out here on the balcony this committed artist can be seen experimenting.

In a painting aptly called “Light” a sweep of foliage encircles a view of a pond and a young woman approaching it; the whole carried out by dabs of color rather than strokes. Nearby, “A Day in the Country” has some of the same approach. He ignores human occupants for “Coast Village,” a watercolor in which brilliant light casts purple shadows. He makes a hasty, idea-filled watercolor sketch of the Grand Canyon, on the spot, and later composes a rousing symphony of colors for the oil painting “Looking across the Grand Canyon” (1910).

The exhibition, which begins with his 1890 self-portrait, ends with another, from the 1920s. His face has softened, his beard has lessened, the rather daring use of color for his young face has been tamed but not eliminated. Edward Henry Potthast was not a great artist but he wasn’t a bad one. This show, centered on his most popular work, is designed to be a crowd-pleaser but the final section and the catalogue suggest there are interesting avenues unexplored in the exhibition.

If Eternal Summer fills the bill for today’s museums’ reach for flash and dazzle shows, the catalogue provides a necessary and more searching look at the artist. “An exploration of the painting techniques of the native Cincinnati artist Edward Henry Potthast has proven to be far more complex than anticipated,” writes Per Knutas, conservator, who then expands on that theme in “Painting Techniques of Edward Henry Potthast.”. Curator Aronson develops her thoughts on the artist as Cincinnati’s first Impressionist painter in one essay and in another, “Potthast and the Beach,” she puts these works in context with those of contemporaries who also found the seaside a distinctly modern subject. Her individual essays on several specific aspects include one on his graphics and another on his landscapes. Carol Troyen writes perceptively of the man as well as his work in “Sketching on the Beach: Potthast and Watercolor.”

It’s perhaps particularly appropriate that the exhibition and publication of the catalogue take place during the tenth anniversary of the Museum’s Cincinnati Wing, celebrating art that both adds to and relates to the city’s artistic history. Eternal Summer: The Art of Edward Henry Potthast is on view through September 8.

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