Paintings of the beach get no respect. After all, many are just two negative spaces joined by a line of foam. Some have bathers and strollers in them, but the summer sun precludes any close examination of faces. Besides, how much profundity can we expect in scenes of recreation during felicitous weather?
At this time of year, when I was a boy, I spent all my afternoons at the beach in Holland, Michigan. During any of those seasons I'm sure I logged more hours on the sand and in the water than in all my summers since college put together. What stops me from going to the beach? Fear of skin cancer? Modesty vis a vis attire? Time constraints?
No, it's lack of imagination. As a boy, I saw infinite possibilities for traversing the expanse of pale gold into the expanse of blue and then back again. Now I can only think of the diversion I may get from what I can comfortably carry: a book, a towel, a frisbee, lotion, and something to drink. Not even watching water nymphs can occupy me from lunch to supper the way bodysurfing, racing, breathholding contests, water judo, splash fights, and marking the shifting sandbars did when I was a kid.
I thought about all this while looking at Mary Cassatt's 1884 Children on the Beach. The little girl's patient industry for the task of filling up her pail reminds me that exploration and imagination are my favorite states of mind. I had them at the beach when I was a boy; I don't anymore.