Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why Does It Work?

Wild Surf at Ogunquit by Edward Henry Potthast

Here's a painting of the crashing surf and rocks in the small coastal town of Ogunquit, Maine. It's by Edward Henry Potthast, an American Impressionist whose popularity peaked around the turn of the 20th century. To my eye, this painting is strong and exciting. Now, there are plenty of paintings of crashing surf and rocks in the world, but this one happens to work.


Perhaps it's that the loose, juicy paint handling is particularly well suited to the subject of wild waves rushing between jagged rocks.

Maybe it's the design - the sweeping horseshoe of the shoreline rocks spiraling around the agitated waves. There's a wild counterpoint between the brushstrokes that follow the planes of the rocks and those that define the breaking waves.

Is it the color? I keep coming back to those fluffy blobs of white paint in the foam, the ambiguous dabs of muted cobalt in the rocks, the rich tones of blue and green in the waves.

My suspicion is that every painting either "works" to a sufficient degree or doesn't because of the relation of all of its parts to themselves and to the picture's central idea. I also suspect this notion is just as weak as any other that aspires to uncover "the key" to beauty in art and why a work moves us. We know this much, that great art cannot be reduced to any absolute formula. 

Still, I think questioning what moves us about a work of art deepens our appreciation and serves us as we look at other paintings or attempt our own. 

Why do you think the Potthast works?

By the way, in April I'm leading a one-day workshop in Ogunquit, where Potthast painted (as did Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam, Emil Carlson, and many others). There's info about it on my Website if you'd like to try to unlock Potthast's secret by trying it yourself.


  1. You're right about the ineffable nature of beauty in art. The subject is ripe--the line where two very different states of matter meet. What could be harder than granite? What could be softer than water? Yet the water carves the granite. Still, as you say, their are many paintings of this subject. There is something in us that recognizes the extent to which an artist has captured the truth of this elemental interface: Earth/Water/Wind/Energy. It's not absolute: a Dadaist might pooh-pooh the piece as stodgy, a merchant of the Baroque era as shocking, new-fangled. Myself, I'm with you. I find it pleasurable and evocative, especially on a morning like this when I'd rather huddle by the woodstove than walk through icy ocean spray.

  2. Well said, Andrew! I love your insight about the elemental interface of matter and energy. That's an interesting way of considering landscape painting in general. I spent many solitary hours as a kid wandering around on the shore of Long Island Sound where I grew up, and now I think part of it was about inhabiting that interface- the tideline being the point where human striving stopped and everything else began - nature, vastness, energy, the unknown.

  3. Potthast obviously loved paint - the medium, color and mark-making - as much as the subject itself. And that's one of the things that, for me, makes a painting work.
    Lovely example of his work by the way.