Reginald Marsh - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Photographer
Biography of Reginald Marsh
Childhood and Education
Reginald Marsh was born into a wealthy American family. His parents were both artists, father, Fred Dana Marsh was known for his paintings and murals of society themes, whilst his mother, Alice Randall, focused on watercolor works. After spending the first two years of his life in Paris, the family returned to America, settling in an artists' colony in Nutley, New Jersey. The artist's formative years were spent surrounded by people who fostered his interest in art and the medium provided an outlet and form of expression for Marsh who was a shy and socially awkward child. In 1914, at the age of 16, Marsh moved with his family to New Rochelle, New York where shortly after he was sent away for his education first to Riverview Military Academy in Poughkeepsie and then to Lawrenceville Preparatory School in New Jersey.
Marsh's formal artistic training began at Yale University in 1916. It was here that he became an illustrator and eventually the art director of the college publication the Yale Record. During this time, he often travelled to New York City to capture scenes of life for the magazine. After graduation he moved to the city, gaining employment at the Daily News as a staff artist and, later, as a cartoonist for The New Yorker when it began publishing in 1925. The observations he made for these outlets helped to shape the themes of his later paintings.
During this time, Marsh also furthered his artistic study, briefly attending the Art Students League in 1922 where he was influenced by his teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller. It was here that he met and, a year later married, his classmate Betty Burroughs who also came from an artistic family. Betty's father Bryson Burroughs, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provided Marsh with exposure to important people in the New York art scene including Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper.
Although Marsh initially considered painting "a laborious way to make a bad drawing" he was inspired to adopt the medium by a trip he and Betty took to Europe in 1925. While there, he was heavily influenced by Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic artists. According to art historian and curator, Barbara Haskell, "he understood at once that the densely packed, agitated canvases of Baroque and Neo-Baroque artists contained clues to how he could impose order on New York's fast-paced, compressed, disjunctive stimuli without draining them of their lusty abundance and vitality".
In 1928 Marsh settled into a studio on Fourteenth Street where he worked among a community of artists including Isabel Bishop, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Raphael Soyer, who focused on portraying the daily lives of New Yorkers. This group became known as the the Fourteenth Street School. Whilst the artist began to develop his unique style, he also suffered a range of personal bereavements and issues, between 1927 and 1929 he lost his mother, brother, and grandfather (whose estate allowed him lifelong financial security). In 1932, he divorced his wife after she gave birth to a child that he realized he could not have fathered after discovering he was sterile. Six months later he married the 21 year old painter Felicia Meyer.
Despite these adversities, Marsh's career began to gain momentum and in 1929, he returned to the Art Students League to study with Thomas Hart Benton, with whom he became good friends. Benton introduced Marsh to tempera paint of which he said, "It opened up a new world to me". In addition, this association led to a connection with the Regionalism art movement. Whilst Marsh's depictions of city life distinguished him from Benton and most of the other Regionalist artists such as Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry who focused on rural scenes, his ability to capture the uniquely 'American' experience of urban life linked to the ethos of the movement.
In his paintings, Marsh portrayed people frequenting burlesque shows, cinemas, dance halls, and other attractions on Coney Island, as well as the struggling men and women on the streets of New York City's Bowery neighborhood. Whilst usually adopting the role of observer at these venues, on one occasion in 1936, the normally reserved Marsh was persuaded to join in a mock ceremony on the stage of the Oriental Theatre where he helped to present famous dancer Gypsy Rose Lee with an honorary 'Doctor of Strip Teasing' degree. When the push by authorities to close burlesque shows became serious and many owners became uncomfortable with allowing cameras or people to draw during shows, Marsh used a miniature notebook of only about four inches square hidden in his pocket to be able to continue making sketches of the crowds and performers.
Marsh also acknowledged the power of his art to help him combat his shyness when he stated that, "when I feel neglected at a party, I reach for my sketchbook, and soon everyone is gathered around, watching me". The work he produced in this period contributed to his selection for two federal government commissions as part of the Works Progress Administration, a mural in the Federal Building in Washington D.C. in 1936 and a sixteen panel design for the U.S. Custom House in New York in 1937 for which he depicted scenes of ships traveling to and arriving in the New York City harbor.
In addition to sketching, the camera proved an effective vehicle for Marsh to observe the world around him and he created many photographs throughout his career, particularly after the purchase of a Leica 35-mm camera in 1938. Whilst he was initially skeptical of what he described as the "fake realism" of the camera, he quickly changed his mind when he realized its potential noting that "this photography is the maddest activity I have ever taken up. I am planning many new subjects with the camera's aid".
Marsh's paintings documented an important period in United States history, including the years of the Depression. His paintings were consequently bought by museums but did not, until years after his death, appeal to most private collectors. Aware of this, Marsh reasoned that his subject matter was too confrontational for the general public, but that this might change with time. He stated, "Wait awhile. Wait a generation or two - wait until my people look old-fashioned. When they look like people you never knew, almost like people who never lived....They'll just be strange, quaint people of somebody else's world. Then my pictures will sell. Then people will be glad to hang them on their walls. They'll boast about 'em then".
In addition to trying to understand the lack of interest by collectors, Marsh also had to defend himself from critical attacks most notably by artist Stuart Davis who after Time magazine's praise of Regionalism in 1934 publicly called the artists involved with the movement 'fascists' and accused Marsh directly of the sin of painting for fun. Marsh responded that he had nothing to apologize for and supporting his approach to realism stated, "Well, what should we do...be ashamed for being what we are....Whatever you say, there is a tradition to be proud of."
After the Second World War Marsh continued to paint in the style he had developed during the 1920s and 30s, in the post-war climate his style seemed dated and he was reluctant to embrace changes in the art world. Referencing what he felt was a disturbing shift away from realism to abstraction he stated, "Everything I've loved is disappearing. They've torn down the El; the burlesque is gone. I hardly recognized Coney Island anymore. All the things of the old days were so much better to draw. The Art Museums of our country...are rapidly and tragically snuffing out the representation of form and life, in favor of pictures that picture nothing. The Connoisseurs who hate pictures that contain Things, Men, Women, Sex, Cows, Skies, Trees, Ships, Shoes, and Subways are pleased with their point of view and say that at least there is now ART - High and Pure and Sterile - no Sex, no Drinks, no Muscles". Marsh also fell out of favor with some critics who drew parallels between his work and Soviet and Fascist propaganda. This shift in perception affected Marsh deeply and his work began to change as he turned inwards creating images less focused on realism.
During the 1940s Marsh returned to the Art Students League as a teacher and continued to work in illustration, creating images for magazines including Life, Fortune, and Esquire. He did not, however, live to see the resurgence of his art which happened decades later. Marsh felt the decline in appreciation of his work keenly and this is evident in the months before his death, when, upon receipt of the Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal for Graphic Art, he simply stated by way of acknowledgement that, "I am not a man of this century".
The Legacy of Reginald Marsh
Reginald Marsh's biggest impact can be seen terms of social history, providing an unique insight into the daily life of 1930s New Yorkers. His subject matter offered a different approach to those of many of the Social Realist and Regionalist artists who chose to focus on the difficulties associated with the Great Depression years, whilst Marsh's depictions demonstrate the ability of humans to find some semblance of enjoyment and happiness in what was an otherwise oppressive period in American history. His pieces are not just documentary but capture the spirit of the time, conveying energy and change.
Marsh's ability to elevate scenes of popular culture, marketing, and advertising to the status of fine art can be viewed as laying the foundations for the Pop Art movement and Marsh had a strong thematic influence on Roy Lichtenstein who was one his pupils at the Art Students League. According to Barbara Haskell, "Decades before the Pop artists turned their attention to advertising and tabloid headlines, Marsh understood these art forms as modern-day folktales. By situating their visual messages within the tumultuous jumble of unrelated, fragmentary images that constitute the modern urban landscape, he conveyed the ambiguity, fragmentation, and disorienting flux of the world in which we live and attempt to establish meaningful human relationships".