Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on September 24, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Gregg Hertzlieb. The essay was previously included in a February 2002 illustrated brochure published by the Museum. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:
"Girl Walking," 1946, A Painting by the Artist Reginald Marsh (1898 - 1954)
by Gregg Hertzlieb
A major new acquisition, purchased with funds generously provided by the FRIENDS of Art of the Brauer Museum of Art, joins the Brauer collection of fine American works of art. Girl Walking, a 1946 painting on paper by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), is an excellent example of the artist's insightful works that depict life in the city.
Each year, the FRIENDS of Art of the Brauer Museum provides the funds for an important work of art for the museum's permanent collection. Through a special committee, certain members of the FRIENDS actively participate in the decision-making process which takes place over several months. Of all the artists considered for this year's purchase, Reginald Marsh was a clear favorite because of his lively draftsmanship, his engaging subject matter, and his importance to both the Brauer's collection and the history of American art in general. Girl Walking, offered by Owings Dewey Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, fascinated all involved in the committee. Its warmth, depth, color, and enigmatic subject elevated it above the other choices. Committee members knew, the more they looked at it, that they wanted to see this picture many more times, hopefully in the company of other Brauer masterpieces (many of them FRIENDS acquisitions). The staff of the museum is grateful for the FRIENDS' loyal support.
Reginald Marsh was an artist committed to capturing the look and essence of American life, mainly during the first half of the twentieth century. His approach to art was an outgrowth of ideas held by Robert Henri and the Ashcan School artists, many of wham are represented in the Brauer's collection by very fine pieces. Henri and the Ashcan School members sought to establish a truly and uniquely American approach to visual art. They believed that a realistic presentation of middle and lower-class life in the inner cities, conveyed through tonal effects and paint application styles mastered by such European artists as Frans Hals and Edouard Manet, would be perfect for conveying the character of early twentieth century America. Ashcan School artists chose as their subject matter men washing windows, women hanging laundry, or children playing in the street. By choosing subjects such as these, they wished to show that beauty could be found in the most humble or ordinary places; in this attitude, they differed greatly from the Impressionists, who focused mainly on the leisure activities of the wealthy. As a movement, the Ashcan School did not last long, much to the dismay of Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, and others. It was usurped as the key form or philosophy for American art by abstract art, which burst into American consciousness via the Armory Show, a major New York exhibition which introduced receptive viewers to cubism and other aspects of modernism.
Marsh did not choose the path of abstraction. Instead, he continued to pursue the Ashcan School's goals of finding the beautiful in sensitive depictions of urban scenes. The bustling environments of Coney Island and New York City were well-suited for Marsh's artistic eye, and he recorded the busy scenes with enthusiasm and a rich sense of humor. Both he and Edward Hopper were the perfect heirs to the Ashcan School's legacy, due to their appreciation for the real (as opposed to the artificial or cerebral world of abstraction) and their masterful transcription of that reality into distinct, personal vocabularies. Drawing was a medium ideal for Marsh's outlook, due to its immediacy and its fresh, textured surface. These drawings are often done in black or umber, with ink or oil washes, and are crowded with figures, each individual personage happily pursuing some activity meant to delight the viewer with its eccentric nature. Marsh's crowds are fascinating in this regard, because the viewer's eye is spread to all parts of the picture plane; each corner, each facial expression yields a visual reward.
The crowd, however, is by no means the only place where Marsh is able to display his insights about human character. Pieces that represent one or two people are equally charged with meaning, possibly more so due to the greater moods of introspection and intimacy that are available for observation in subjects very few in number. Most of the works of this type represent women, a subject for which Marsh is most well-known. His women are often very sexy, full of buxom vitality as they cast their eyes toward some distant point, aware of themselves being observed and admired. The range of feelings conveyed by Marsh's pictures of women is truly remarkable, summoned up by simple facial expressions or body poses. Girl Walking is a work that is full of mystery and tension. A girl, dressed in daring fashion for the time period, strides confidently forward, her eyes set on the distance and her arms stiffly at her sides. A portly, balding man lurks in an alcove, perhaps oblivious to her presence and perhaps not. The seeming raciness of her dress (as seen in her tight blouse, short hemline, and black stockings) leads viewers to wonder about her occupation or social role; perhaps she is a prostitute or a cocktail waitress or simply a woman out on the town, partaking in the greater leisure possibilities available to women in the 1940s. Whatever the case, she is alone, fashionably dressed up and making her way through her dimly-lit surroundings. The shadowed profile of a man, seen and not seen, is physically very close to her, leading one to establish some sort of relationship between the two of them. The woman's yellow hair and red skirt are like beacons that not only attract the eyes of viewers, but also, in the world of the painting, may attract the eyes of the man. Marsh's painting can certainly be seen as a straightforward study of a woman he observed on the street, passing by a fellow who happened to be standing nearby. The shadowy male figure, however, juxtaposed with the woman's slightly awkward gait and the stiff, set pose of her head and eyes, seems to point to a more psychological interpretation. Marsh's lengthy study of the American city would most likely have lead to some disturbing observations of male and female relations taking place in the anonymity of the streets.
The warmth and depth of the painting comes from the artist's adept handling of diluted oil paint, applied with layers of washes on the canvas paper surface. Passages of color (in, as mentioned before, the woman's skirt and hair) leap out from the umber background to provide even more pictorial dimension. Girl Walking is very much an oil sketch, where the artist worked very quickly with the thin pigment to compose his forms; the result of his using this technique is that the painting has a liveliness to it, seemingly coming together before the viewer's eyes directly from Marsh's fertile imagination. The many thin, light streaks or marks revealing white canvas-paper beneath the umber washes are most likely scrapings done by the handle of Marsh's paintbrush. The feeling of spontaneity is reinforced by these subtractive gestures, which provide highlights to increase the overall illusion of volume. Girl Walking is definitely a finished work of art, despite the rapidity of its execution. In it, one can see the artist's mind at work, as well as his ability to imbue an apparently simple scene a variety of dramatic possibilities for viewers to consider.
Girl Walking is destined to become a favorite piece in the Brauer galleries. Deceivingly simple, the painting invites all to view it more closely in order to comprehend its meaning and appreciate the means of its execution. The staff of the Brauer Museum of Art wishes to thank again the remarkable members of the FRIENDS of Art. Their willingness to give students, faculty members, and community members such wonderful treasures to enjoy is truly admirable.
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