Reginald Marsh, American (1898 - 1954)
Reginald Marsh (March 14, 1898 – July 3, 1954) was an American painter, born in Paris, most notable for his depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. Crowded Coney Island beach scenes, popular entertainments such as vaudeville and burlesque, women, and jobless men on the Bowery are subjects that reappear throughout his work. He painted in egg tempera and in oils, and produced many watercolors, ink and ink wash drawings, and prints.
Reginald Marsh was born in an apartment in Paris above the Café du Dome. He was the second son born to his parents who were both artists themselves. His mother, Alice Randall was a miniaturist painter and his father, Fred Dana Marsh, was a muralist and one of the earliest American painters to depict modern industry. The family was well off; Marsh's paternal grandfather had made a fortune in the meat packing business. When Marsh was two years old his family moved to Nutley, New Jersey.
Marsh attended the Lawrenceville School and graduated in 1920 from Yale University. At Yale Art School he worked as the star illustrator for the Yale Record, the college newspaper. Marsh was noted to have fully enjoyed his time at Yale. He moved to New York after graduation, where his ambition was to find work as a freelance illustrator. In 1922 he was hired to sketch vaudeville and burlesque performers for a regular New York Daily News feature, and when The New Yorker began publication in 1925, Marsh was among the magazine's first cartoonists. He also submitted illustrations to the New Masses (an American Marxist journal published from the 1920s to the 1940s).
A casual interest in learning to paint led Marsh, in 1921, to begin taking classes at the Art Students League of New York, where his first teacher was John Sloan. By 1923 Marsh began to paint seriously. In 1925 Marsh visited Paris for the first time since he had lived there as a child and he fell in love with what the city had to offer him Although Marsh had appreciated the drawings of Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo since he was a child—his father’s studio was full of reproductions of the old masters' work—the famous paintings that he saw at the Louvre and other museums stimulated in him a new fascination with the old masters.
While exploring the works of European painters such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Rubens, Marsh met Thomas Hart Benton in one of the galleries in France. Benton, known today as a social realist, and regionalist painter, was also a great student of the Baroque masters. The resemblance Marsh saw between Tintoretto’s famous works and Benton’s motivated Marsh to try to paint in a similar way. Following his European trip (in which he also visited Florence) Marsh returned to New York with a desire to utilize the principles he felt were evident in the art of the Renaissance painters—particularly the way large groups of figures, together with architecture or landscape elements, were organized into stable compositions.
Marsh then studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller and George Luks, and chose to do fewer commercial assignments. Miller, who taught at the Art Students League of New York, instructed Marsh on the basics of form and design, and encouraged Marsh to make himself known to the world. He looked at Marsh's early, awkward burlesque sketches and at his more conventional landscape watercolors and said, "These awkward things are your work. These are real. Stick to these things and don’t let anyone dissuade you!" By the beginning of the 1930s Marsh began to express himself fully in his art. As late as 1944 Marsh wrote, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student."
Marsh began to work with John Steuart Curry after his training with Miller. Both Marsh and Curry took lessons from Jacques Maroger, whom Marsh met in New York City in 1940. Maroger, who was a former restorer at the Louvre, believed he had discovered the secrets of the old masters and was well known for his advocacy of a painting medium made by cooking white lead in linseed oil. Maroger provided a body of material documenting his work for Marsh and Curry to study, and they adopted his ideas.
He was much influenced by urban realists John Sloan, George
Luks and Kenneth Hayes Miller. He went briefly to Europe and
then returned to New York to pursue his sympathetic depiction
of low-life subjects. In the 1930s, he did murals for the W.P.
A., and in 1943, he was elected a full academician to the National
Academy of Design.
During the 1940s and for many years Reginald Marsh became an important teacher at the Art Students League of New York, which ran a summer camp where Marsh's students included Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein was influenced by Marsh's subject matter in his work. Also in the 40s Marsh began making drawings for magazines such as Esquire, Fortune, and Life. A degree of mannerism is apparent in his later paintings, in which wraithlike figures "float in a watery netherworld" in a deeper pictorial space than that of his compositions of the 1930s.
Reginald Marsh rejected modern art, which he found sterile. Marsh’s style can best be described as social realism. His work depicted the Great Depression and a range of social classes whose division was accentuated by the economic crash. His figures are generally treated as types. "What interested Marsh was not the individuals in a crowd, but the crowd itself ... In their density and picturesqueness, they recall the crowds in the movies of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra".
Marsh’s main attractions were the burlesque stage, the hobos on the Bowery, crowds on city streets and at Coney Island, and women. His deep devotion to the old masters led to his creating works of art in a style that reflects certain artistic traditions, and his work often contained religious metaphors. "It was upon the Baroque masters that Marsh based his own human comedy", inspired by the past but residing in the present. The burlesque queen in the etching Striptease at New Gotham (1935) assumes the classic Venus Pudica pose; elsewhere, "Venuses and Adonises walk the Coney Island beach [and] deposed Christs collapse on the Bowery". The painting Fourteenth Street (1934, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York) depicts a large crowd in front of a theater hall, in a tumbling arrangement that recalls a Last Judgment.
Marsh filled sketchbooks with drawings made on the street, in the subway, or at the beach. Marolyn Cohen calls Marsh's sketchbooks "the foundation of his art. They show a passion for contemporary detail and a desire to retain the whole of his experience". He drew not only figures but costumes, architecture, and locations. He made drawings of posters and advertising signs, the texts of which were copied out along with descriptions of the colors and use of italics. In the early 1930s he took up photography as another means of note taking.
Signage, newspaper headlines, and advertising images are often prominent in Marsh's finished paintings, in which color is used to expressive ends—drab and brown in Bowery scenes; lurid and garish in sideshow scenes.
Shortly before his death he received the Gold Medal for Graphic Arts awarded by the American Academy and the National Institute for Arts and Letters. Marsh died from a heart attack in Dorset, Vermont on July 3, 1954.
Many of his prints and thousands of unpublished sketches were found in his estate after he died. They revealed more of the true depth of his work. Because Marsh made good records of his work, often on a daily basis, it was easy to find his unpublished works and publish them. A set of prints that were acquired by William Benton from Marsh’s wife are now all in the William Benton Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Middendorf Gallery in Washington, D.C.