Potthast was born into a family of artisans in Cincinnati, Ohio. He studied intermittently at the McMicken School of Design and supported himself as a lithographer and illustrator. After a trip to Europe in 1882, Potthast returned to Cincinnati and took evening classes at the Cincinnati Museum Association. In 1887 he went back to Europe and divided his time between Munich and Paris. In 1889 or 1890, he visited Grez and met Robert Vonnoh and Roderick O'Connor, who encouraged him to turn to the landscape for his subject matter (he had been concentrating on the figure to that point) and to use a lighter, more colorful palette. Potthast returned to the States in 1892 and moved to New York City in 1896. After his move he concentrated mostly on painting the beach scenes that brought him great success. Using an impressionist palette and loose brushwork, Potthast effectively captured the joie de vivre of a lovely day at the beach.