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Reginald Marsh

American Painter and Photographer

Reginald Marsh Photo

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."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
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.

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