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Friday, July 8, 2011

Oil Painting of the Day: "The Grand Canyon." Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927)

Oil on canvas: 30” x 40”
Signed l.r.: E. Potthast

With staggeringly bold forms and brilliant hues, Edward Potthast’s Grand Canyon is a testament to the profound influence of westward travel on American artists in the twentieth century. In this work one can see through the eyes of the painter the breathtaking experience of viewing this dramatic vista, unrivaled in its sheer scale and monumental beauty. This experience would indeed prove life-altering for Potthast, whose commitment to the Southwest would endure throughout his career as he continued to travel there to paint the Canyon, and also to forge a community of artists similarly inspired by its magnificence. At the outset of the twentieth century, was a brand new rail line extending all the way to the very edge of the Grand Canyon, the Santa Fe Railway had an entire country to convince to travel westward. Having come dangerously close to bankcruptcy in the late 1880s, railway executives began to study the possibilities of creating an advertising campaign that would invite artists to travel there at the Railroad’s expense in exchange for the right to reproduce their paintings in advertisements for the line. In earlier years, it had been a lengthy and grueling journey to send artists to the Grand Canyon to promote tourism. However, with the new line direct travel to the Canyon was finally possible, and in 1901 the first locomotive took passengers all the way to the south rim.

In November of 1910, in an effort to transform the image of the Santa Fe Railway and to stimulate tourism to the Southwest, Ohio-born Potthast, along with four other prominent artists, was invited by the Railway to journey to the Grand Canyon to recreate on canvas the unique experience of its landscape. It has been written that the five artists, Thomas Moran, Elliott Daingerfield, Frederick B. Williams, De Witt Parshall, and Potthast, all from very different schools of painting, were led to the edge of the canyon with their eyes closed so that they may be awed by the panorama in its entirety, and indeed, they were overwhelmed by its magnificence.

This would be the first visit to the Grand Canyon for Potthast, who out of the group would be particularly moved by the experience. Indeed, in the present work one can see the artist’s confident handling and impressionistic color. In addition, Potthast celebrates the awe-inspiring expanse and sublime scale of the Canyon by creating a marvelous depth in his composition. The sun breaks gloriously through the menacing gray skies and the rainbow emerges as a beacon of hope and promise, signaling nature as a moral force, and manifesting romantic associations common among viewers of the Western landscape at the time.

Potthast would go on to exhibit his depictions of the Grand Canyon at the National Academy in 1911, 1918, and 1920. It has been speculated by Dr. John Wilson that the present painting may have been the work that Potthast exhibited at the Academy in 1918. (J. Wilson, Edward Henry Potthast: American Impressionist, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1998, p.14) Potthast’s devotion to the Southwest would also lead him to become a founder of a group called the Society of Men Who Paint the West, which included several of the artists who accompanied Potthast on the 1910 painting excursion.

Offered at $900,000

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