American Painter and Photographer
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.
- 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
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.
Important Art by Reginald Marsh
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".
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.
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.