A few weeks ago I was invited to lunch at a private beach club in Connecticut. As I sat in the shade of an awning and squinted into the glare of a sunlit shoreline, I got to thinking about the beach as playground and its place as subject matter in American painting. The subject of shoreline recreation has provided artists with natural situations for composing multiple figures and studying the nude or nearly nude body out of doors. Their paintings and drawings have reflected changing cultural attitudes regarding exposure of the figure, as well as socioeconomic differences in the forms of available recreation. What follows is a virtual exhibition of my favorite essays on the theme.
The first painter I thought of was William Merritt Chase, whose images of the dunes and shore at Southampton, Long Island, were closest in both topography and spirit to the beach I was visiting. At the Seaside is Exhibit A for the halcyon vision of upper-class leisure, with fully-dressed women and children relaxing amid brightly colored umbrellas. Chase’s handling of paint is both virtuosic and eminently tasteful; the suave abbreviations of his brushwork fit the subject perfectly. At the Seaside was a product of Chase’s stint as director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, the first major school in America devoted solely to summer landscape painting. Chase’s decade-long stretch there was charmed—wealthy patrons lured him to Long Island by constructing the school and a separate home just for the artist and his young family—but success came in fits and starts. The image of cultivated leisure he worked hard to maintain was shadowed by financial difficulty, and during his reign at Shinnecock, Chase was compelled to auction off the contents of his famously chic New York studio. Yet his Long Island landscapes are free of such troubles. Populated by his wife and daughters, they constitute a serene vision of domestic life at the seaside.
Like Chase, Edward Potthast was a Midwestern native who studied in Munich, and at first sight his paintings of New York and New England beaches appear to have much in common with those by Chase. However, Beach Scene (or Sunday on the Beach), indicates a different culture and a distinctive approach. Though focused on the play of several brightly-clad girls at the water’s edge, the painting itself features a rougher execution, the pigment applied in thick and seemingly spontaneous passages. The tactile quality of the impastoed surface is more insistent than Chase’s suave marksmanship. Just as crucial is the shift in subject: whereas Chase’s Shinnecock paintings depicted family life in a private setting, Potthast chose crowded public beaches for his themes. The middle ground of Beach Scene is filled with adult women clad in dark bathing suits, and in the distance may be seen an urban skyline and city pier.
Potthast’s predilection for city beaches, and the public acceptance of the subject, were surely facilitated by the success of the Ashcan School in the first decade of the twentieth century. Still, cursory divisions between genres and generations are to be discouraged—aristocratic a front as Chase adopted, he was the first artist to make plein-air paintings in Central Park and Prospect Park, laying the foundation for subsequent essays on the urban theme by a multitude of painters, and George Bellows, the Ashcan prodigy, eventually moved from rambunctious city scenes to paintings of polo and tennis at Newport. Such blurred lines suggest that artists were simultaneously chronicling the broader cultural environment while reflecting the immediate circumstances of their own lives.
Fifteen years and a few miles separate Bellows’ paintings of child ruffians swimming at the edge of Manhattan Island from Chase’s leisurely idylls, and though the differences in subject are bracing, what is common to both artists is a fluid painterly draftsmanship. Bellows was arguably at his best in canvases like Forty-two Kids, a tour-de-force whose gritty theme is leavened by a boisterous sense of humor. The decorum of a feminine world that was depicted by Chase and Potthast gave way in the work of Bellows to the rough-and-tumble existence of city street kids smoking, pissing, and skinny-dipping in a river black as industrial ink. To note that the irresistible energy of Forty-two Kids owes something to its loose, cartoonish approach is less a criticism than recognition of the limitations of black and white photography of the era, which Bellows’ biographer Mahonri Sharp Young rightly called “lugubrious.” Nonetheless, the joyfulness of Forty-two Kids, acted out upon a rotting pier and without a trace of sky, is redolent of a squalid life far removed from genteel seaside leisure. On a more formal level, the canvas provided an opportunity for Bellows to paint the brilliantly illuminated nude—many nudes, in fact—in dramatic contrast against a dark backdrop.
A common characteristic of these paintings was that the figures, be they Chase’s adored daughters or Bellows’ urchins, were viewed at a distance and in the context of the broader landscape or cityscape. Among twentieth-century American artists, there was perhaps no draftsman more obsessively interested in the figure for its own sake than Reginald Marsh, and his prints and paintings of bathers at Coney island were an excuse to study the human body in casual, intimate, and active situations. “I like to go to Coney Island,” Marsh said, “because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds—crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving—like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens.” Marsh, a prominent instructor at the Art Students League, filled the picture plane with figures that were based on sketches made from life. Although he was inspired by Old Masters, his subjects were not constrained by classical prototypes, instead depicting the relaxed or raucous behavior of adults who crowded New York’s most famous public beach. There is, as in Bellows’ paintings, a sense of humor, but Marsh was more drawn to human interaction, with an accent on raw, if sensitively observed, physicality.
The graphic power of New York City realism in the earlier twentieth century would years later be sustained in David Levine’s satirical drawings. Yet despite Levine’s acid brilliance as a caricaturist, his paintings were far more concerned with an often delicate arrangement of pattern and color. As did Marsh, Levine liked to venture from his Manhattan studio to find material on the beach at Coney Island, but Untitled (Three Women, Two Umbrellas on beach) is closer in spirit to Maurice Prendergast or even Vuillard than to the traditions of urban realism. The monumental figures of elderly women swathed in white drapery—the most self-conscious and artfully composed figures of this sampling—seem like ironic references to the sprightly linen-clad girls of Chase’s Shinnecock oils. As in Chase’s and Potthast’s oils, the figures in Levine’s Coney Island watercolors are steeped in the atmosphere of the landscape, to the extent that specificity of both place and personality are largely ceded to a soft-edged abstraction. Further, the abstraction of Untitled suggests a mood of isolation contrary to the enjoyment of physical density that was so vital to Bellows and Marsh.
Summer is short in the Northeast, which may account for the theme’s enduring popularity here. For all their miles of shoreline, there’s no comparable history of great art chronicling the social fabric or physiques of beachgoers in Florida, Hawaii or California. I write this as summer slips away, and what lay ahead are the onset of fall colors, bare landscape and bitter cold. C’est la vie. Until next June rolls around, we’ve got these paintings to remind us of a brief season and its high spirits.