There is a slightly illicit feeling to thrift stores. When I walk in, I usually feel an urge to wash my hands or take a disinfectant wipe to my forehead. Perhaps it is the remains of all the lives that occurred near each piece of merchandise before they were donated. Most of us are infected with unresolved resentments, or unfulfilled yearnings and these stick to the things around us. Then we give our things away, not really worn out, but sullied by our lives to the point where we want new stuff.
Then . . .the naiveté of the “Children on the Beach”. Wonderful light, and no hiding the fact of paint as the medium. Such an idyllic scene, carefree life at the beach in the late 19th century. This was a time when children wore what strikes our modern eye as street clothes for a swim. They just pulled up their pant legs or hiked up their bulbous dresses for a wade and a jump in the waves. So outside the realm of illicit. And it is this quality of standing outside the thrift store air, somehow untouched by the illicitness, that draws me to a particular print or painting.
Edward Henry Potthast was raised in Cincinnati, then visited Europe in the 1880s. The visit made him an impressionist. He was taken by Monet and Renoir. They loved to paint outside. And when he returned to this country, and moved to New York City, he spent much of his painting time at the beaches: Jones Beach, Coney Island and further up into New England’s beaches of Cape Cod and the like. He often spent his days with his easel propped up in the sand.
I picked “Children on the Beach” out from the ragged pile of prints against the wall. (It is hard to appreciate beautiful art in a pile. Have you ever seen a Versace dress thrown in a clothes hamper after a night’s wearing out dancing?) It made me smile with appreciation, knowing the piece would look beautiful with a little cleaning and a thoughtful hanging in a rescuer’s living room.
Then, slowly, the urge to wash my hands came over me again. The frame was very clean; and I had lifted it out of the pile of this-and-that prints against the wall, lifted it out of the illicit of the thrift store art. Yet the feeling remained.
I had a soft sense that the scene, idyllic and a bit romanticized, had a subtle sensual feeling to it. The way the little boy lifted his shorts. The little girls frolicking openly with waves splashing against their hairless legs. Perhaps “Children on the Beach” was not illicit due to its former owners’ resentments and yearnings. Perhaps, Mr. Potthast was a bit of a trickster, painting scenes not to be told aloud.