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Reginald Marsh Photo

Reginald Marsh

American Painter and Photographer

Born: March 14, 1898 - Paris, France
Died: July 3, 1954 - Dorset, Vermont
"Well-bred people are no fun to paint. I'd rather paint an old suit of clothes than a new one because an old one has character, reality is exposed and not disguised. People of wealth spend money to disguise themselves."
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Reginald Marsh Signature
"Must not American painting, to endure, seek to gain knowledge of the principles of the great tradition of Western Art?"
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Reginald Marsh Signature
"There is a world of real people, both male and female - flesh, blood, elbows, facial expression, unbroken necks - a world that has more in it than rubber clouds, hors-d'oeurves, cockeyed tables, splintery napkins, jittery Africans, one-sided women."
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Reginald Marsh Signature
"I like to go to Coney Island because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds - crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving - like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens"
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Reginald Marsh Signature

Summary of Reginald Marsh

Marsh was a keen observer of people and his exuberant, documentary style paintings are unique in their focus on crowds rather than individuals. Painting in the 1930s and 40s, Marsh portrayed a city undergoing radical social and economic change through the Depression, the altering role of women in society, and the onset of the Second World War. An urban realist, he was fascinated with populist activities including the amusements of Coney Island, burlesque shows, and dance halls, Marsh chronicled the daily lives of working class New Yorkers, often representing the seedier side of the entertainments they enjoyed. Although stylistically modern, Marsh can be seen as the New York equivalent of artists and caricaturists such as William Hogarth (eighteenth-century London) and Honore Daumier (nineteenth-century Paris), painting what he saw but also offering elements of social commentary and occasional satire.

Accomplishments

  • Through complex, multi-figure compositions and bright colors Marsh captured the energy and pace of New York. His work often lacked a single visual focus and this, in conjunction with his choppy brushwork and asymmetry, does not allow the eye to settle at any one point, creating a sense of restlessness and continual movement in his paintings which is in direct contrast with other Regionalist artists.
  • The depiction of posters and advertising play a key role in many of Marsh's works focusing attention on the proliferation of the medium and contrasting its garish appearance, products, and promises with the everyday lives of those who consumed it. In faithfully reproducing this imagery and using it as a social commentary, Marsh can be seen as a forerunner of the Pop Art movement that emerged in the late 1950s.
  • Many of Marsh's works display a separation and contrast between the sexes and there is often an element of voyeurism - men are shown in the background watching women perform in burlesque halls, but also on the street. The artist, however, seems to approach the subject of exploitation and power differential between the sexes with a degree of sympathy. The women that Marsh depicted were never diminutive but form a compelling focus for the viewer (as well as for the voyeurs).
  • There is a strong sense of underlying sexuality in much of the artist's work. Marsh often portrayed the naked and scantily-clothed bodies of female performers or the swimsuit clad crowds on Coney Island. In utilizing this imagery Marsh highlighted the contrast between the respectable nudes of Renaissance and Baroque art and the more tawdry use of nudity in a burlesque context or in the exhibitionism associated with certain leisure pursuits.

Biography of Reginald Marsh

Reginald Marsh Life and Legacy

In works like Sorting the Mail (1936), as exhibited in the Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington, D.C., Marsh highlighted a powerful, and also difficult, time in America.



Progression of Art

Texas Guinan and Her Gang (1931)
1931

Texas Guinan and Her Gang

This is one of many paintings that Marsh created of the burlesque shows that were popular in New York during the 1930s, particularly as they often provided a place to purchase alcoholic drinks during prohibition. As with most of his pictures, Marsh portrays real people in it. The woman on the left of the image is Texas Guinan, a well-known silent movie star and live performer, who ran multiple burlesque clubs which were frequented by famous figures including Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker.

The women in the image are curvy with long legs and this style of depiction is seen throughout Marsh's work. The representation of Guinan as a strong and controlling figure full of energy rising above the leering faces of the men is contrasted with the world-weary expressions and states of undress of the performers to the right of the painting. This distinction is further enhanced by the bright colors of the performers' clothing and the effect of the stage lights in focusing attention onto the right of the canvas. The monochrome of the men's evening dress merges their figures into an indistinct mass on the left.

This juxtaposition between power and sexualization in the portrayal of women in Marsh's work has led to debate about his motives. Whilst author Marilyn Cohen argues that Marsh presents women as strong and purposeful and men as less imposing voyeurs, art historian, Erika Doss has suggested the opposite. Doss notes that Marsh's portrayals "...not only denigrated the lower-class women who worked in burlesque but helped to defuse the potentially threatening social and political ambitions of all modern American women".

Tempera on canvas - Collection of Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York

Bread Line - No One Has Starved (1932)
1932

Bread Line - No One Has Starved

This etching, produced at the height of the Depression, shows a line of men waiting for governmental hand-outs of food. The bread line was a common theme in 1930s Social Realism as it demonstrated the tangible effects of the Depression on the working classes. Comparative examples can be seen in Iver Rose's Breadline (1935) and Margaret Bourke-White's iconic photograph, The Flood Leaves its Victims on the Bread Line (1937) which shows African American men and women queuing for food in front of a billboard that proclaims that America has the "world's highest standard of living". More recently the theme was revisited by sculptor George Segal in Depression Bread Line (1991).

The title of this piece is part of a quote taken from President Hoover, who running for reelection in 1932 stated that the American economy was fundamentally sound and that "No one has starved". Rather than seeking to depict individual representations of poverty, Marsh uses the line of similarly dressed men to present a collective image of the effects of the Depression. The line extends beyond the confines of the etching without suggesting a beginning or end and this, alongside the lack of space above and below the figures, alludes to their social and economic immobility.

Marsh briefly engaged with ideas associated with Communism, attending a few classes and contributing illustrations for New Masses, a magazine affiliated with the movement, the title of the piece, therefore, can be seen as a social commentary. The fact, however, that many of the men are attempting to pick the pockets of those in front of them in the line also implies an element of gentle satire to the work. This dichotomy is furthered by the parallels that can be drawn between the image and classical friezes. This can be seen as either a glorification of the average man by presenting them in a classical style or the satirical comparison of the out-of-work poor with the heroes of classical myth.

Etching on paper - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York

Smoko, the Human Volcano (1933)
1933

Smoko, the Human Volcano

Marsh painted many scenes of people gathered at Coney Island, in this instance, side-show performers at the venue's carnival and amusement park. Marsh first visited Coney Island as an illustrator for Vanity Fair where he found inspiration in the large crowds of New Yorkers escaping from the city on hot days. He continued to make regular sketching trips and produced many paintings of the subjects he found there. Around the time he created this canvas he wrote to his wife Felicia, who was in Vermont, that "The wind was fresh and strong blowing great whitecaps in on the seas-the sea a rich blue-The crowd as thick as I've ever seen, much to my delight. The noise of the beach could be heard for miles and there was scarce room on the sand to sit down".

The painting is presented from the perspective of a member of the crowd and Marsh uses an elaborate background of oversized posters to frame the performers in the foreground and this is one of his reoccurring compositional elements. The final image was produced from both photographs and sketches and these demonstrate that Marsh reproduced the signs, along with the appearance and dress of the performers, faithfully. This documentary style of painting ties Marsh's work to a very specific period in time and this is reinforced by his compositions, representational style, and use of color which reflect the energy and alienation generated by a growth in advertising and commercialization.

Egg tempera on masonite - Collection of Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Thyssen, Madrid, Spain

Coney Island (1936)
1936

Coney Island

Here Marsh captures a crowd on the beach at Coney Island. In the foreground a provocatively posed woman attempts to capture the attention of a young man who seems oblivious to her actions and instead looks down at a sleeping man by his feet. In the background, barely visible through the throng of people, are attractions including a roller coaster and carousel. The two characters in the foreground frame the canvas and draw the eye into the crowd, the real focus of the piece. The limited color palette, overlapping limbs, and wide variety of poses makes it difficult for the viewer to pick out individuals within the jumble of bodies. This type of complex composition, with a flattened perspective was a hallmark of many of the artist's works. The figures on display are robust and the forms, both male and female, are energetic in their rendering with a sense of unfettered sexuality pervading the piece, suggesting both enjoyment and an element of the disreputable. The widespread use of yellows throughout the painting represents warmth and sunlight with the occasional red highlight pulling the focus towards the entwined bodies.

Whilst many artists of the 1930s focused on the hardships of the period, Marsh's work celebrates the cult of leisure that emerged in the same period, emphasizing the perseverance of New Yorkers to find what little happiness they could in difficult times. Cultural historian, Morris Dickstein supports this when he states, "Marsh's innumerable images of burlesque, of Coney Island, and of robust street life show us how much more was at stake in Depression-era pastimes than mere escapism...To Depression-era audiences, such diversions represented not simply escape but freedom, mobility, and gratification at a time when they felt hemmed in by grievous economic troubles and limited horizons".

Egg tempera on panel - Collection of Syracuse University Art Collection, Syracuse, New York

Down at Jimmy Kelly's (1936)
1936

Down at Jimmy Kelly's

Jimmy Kelly's was an infamous bar in New York's Chinatown district and here Marsh portrays one of the strippers at work. It has been suggested that the seated man with a cigarette is a depiction of Marsh's friend, Lloyd Goodrich, a curator who would eventually serve as director of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The male audience are animated in their enjoyment of the entertainment and their leering and focused expressions contrast starkly with the appearance of the workers - the bored waiter in the background and the mask-like appearance of the dancer. Heavily made-up and naked apart from her shoes she seems entirely disengaged from her environment and the audience and instead gazes directly towards the viewer. The painting highlights the perspective of the dancer, portraying her in a sympathetic manner that seems to emphasize that she is simply going through the motions of her job, probably out of financial necessity. This lack of enthusiasm does not impinge on the audience who are viewing her merely as a sexual object.

Egg tempera on panel - Collection of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Twenty Cent Movie (1936)
1936

Twenty Cent Movie

Twenty Cent Movie depicts the Lyric Theatre, covered in advertising and with a crowd outside, members of the working classes who frequented cinemas for the escapism that movies offered. Marsh was drawn to the cinema and often utilized cinematic imagery within his paintings, playing into the stereotypical themes and characters of 1930s films. Here he combines the make-believe world of cinema with that of the people who frequent it, drawing parallels between the images of movie stars displayed on the billboards and the confident self-presentation of the viewers who imitate them in dress and pose. The curve of the entrance to the cinema forms a proscenium arch at the top of the canvas and Marsh represents his figures acting out their lives with the street becoming the stage and the brightly colored advertising, the scenic backdrop.

Many of the posters on display on the front of the building suggest themes of sexual activity including 'Emotions Stripped Bare', 'Joys of the Flesh', and 'Dangerous Curves' all of which were real movies of the period. This theme is echoed in the partially clad statues in the foyer of the theater and the division between women on the left of the image and men on the right. Unlike many of Marsh's other images the figures are all full clothed and consequently the sexually charged nudity of other paintings is replaced by written rather than physical sexual content.

The use of sex as an advertising technique does, however, mirror the transactional nature of nudity and sex within the burlesque clubs that Marsh portrayed with such frequency.

Egg tempera on composition board - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York

Untitled (Bowery Street) (1930s)
1930s

Untitled (Bowery Street)

This photograph depicts a scene in the Bowery part of New York City. Men in coats and hats walk down the sidewalk while to the left a parked car is just visible. On the right are shops with signs including an advertisement for a ten cent shave at a barber shop and the entrance to the Owl Hotel. Marsh was fascinated by advertising and replicated it in many of his paintings. This photograph may have helped to inspire Tattoo and Haircut (1932), which features similar signs.

Marsh became an avid photographer during the 1930s, utilizing the medium as both an independent way of documenting what he saw and as a method to rapidly capture subjects for future paintings. He often meticulously combined figures and groups from different photographs onto the same canvas to create the complex compositions for which he was known. His photos, particularly those of Coney Island, still feel fresh today and he excelled at capturing movement and taking images from new and unusual angles.

Gelatin silver print - Collection of Whitney Museum of Art, New York, New York


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Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Reginald Marsh
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Friends & Personal Connections
  • Lloyd Goodrich
    Lloyd Goodrich
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    Alan Burroughs
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    Bryson Burroughs
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Lloyd Goodrich
    Lloyd Goodrich
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    Alan Burroughs
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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Reginald Marsh Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 09 May 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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