Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals: Reframed and Reseen

By Lisa Leavitt



Marsh brought to the project his visual knowledge of the harbor and technical know-how of the fresco medium. The Treasury Relief Art Program, or TRAP, employed him to fresco the Washington D. C. post office a year prior to his Custom House commission. With his own meager income, Marsh employed Olle Nordmark, a European expert on the fresco technique, to advise him on the post office project. Despite objections from the higher-ups, Marsh insisted on using fresco for the custom house murals as well. He eventually won this battle and Nordmark joined him in New York City for this new, more-complex project.

After more deliberations with the authorities, Marsh decided that the sixteen mural spaces, comprising eight large horizontal and eight small vertical areas, would pay homage to and monumentalize the American shipping industry, that dynamic marvel just yards away from the custom house. Marsh rejected the superficial, rosy optimism employed in murals by his Midwest, "American Scene" contemporaries: WPA artists, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Instead, he and his eight assistants went into the "field" and gathered visual data in the form of countless studies. One of his assistants, Mary Fife, writes:

I would get up at three in the morning on a cold spring day and take the Broadway bus down to the Battery, where Reg would be waiting in the dark to board the tugboat which was going out to meet an incoming liner... In those days the harbor was very busy and we were sent down to Battery Park to make detailed sketches of rigging, tugboats, the Statue of Liberty, and the skyline from Governor's Island. We often accompanied Reg on trips to meet the "Queen Mary" or the "Normandie." ...Reg wanted details of lifeboats, davits, hawsers, ventilators, stacks, masts and rigging, sirens, bells, deck-chairs -- everything. [6]

Marsh and his assistants were determined to document the busy harbor on a daily basis and transfer the scenes to the custom house murals, devoid of any honkytonk blue-grass Americana. Despite striving for truthfulness, Marsh's passion for the waterfront makes these murals a celebratory vision of an early twentieth-century cityscape rather than any social-realist or critical depiction.

The larger sections of the custom house rotunda portray eight successive stages in the arrival of an ocean liner in the New York harbor. The ship passes the New York lightship, signaling the approach of the harbor; it meets with the coast guard boat, and discharges its cargo on a pier. These murals salute the order, regulation and efficiency of early American importing and exporting. They exude a proud patriotism in grandiose depictions of the Statue of Liberty and New York skyline, dozens of U.S. flags, and the virile, muscular American laborers working the docks.

One panel entitled, "The Press Meeting a Celebrity," includes a typical figure in the artist's oeuvre, the "Marsh girl," a modern day siren straight out of Hollywood. While in the 1990s, it is hard to believe there was ever a time without the potent presence of Hollywood and the media in American life, Marsh's generation was still defining what it meant to be an American with all of the restlessness, novelty, and constant need for stimulation. Indeed, viewing Marsh's cycle of murals is like watching a contemporary newsreel documenting American commerce and ingenuity.

The rotunda's smaller areas depict eight explorers whose names were inscribed during the building's construction in 1907. In most cases, Marsh attached the appropriate faces to the names of Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus, Giovanni da Verrazano and Henry Hudson. Marsh recreated old-master portraits of various upstanding citizens or royalty as those explorers for whom he had no visual records. He transformed such masterpieces as Titian's Duke of Urbino into specific explorers, adding instruments of navigation to identify them. Done in a trompe l'oeil technique, these larger-than-life, full-length portraits appear to step out of their sculpturesque niches, adding powerful punctuations to the mural cycle narrative.

Lack of historic visuals was the least of Marsh's mural problems. Each step seemed fraught with difficulty. After final approval of his subject matter by the Treasury Department, Marsh moved to prepare the mural walls for his fresco al secco application, a variation on the traditional technique whereby the tempera is applied to a dry wall rather than painted quickly on a wet gessoed wall. With his eight assistants, he spent the summer of 1937 scraping at the walls for a clean slate upon which to paint. TRAP officials had manufactured a special scaffold specifically for the job, enabling the artists to reach the "sky-high" murals. Chief of the TRAP commission, Cecil Jones described some of the havoc:

We have had to replaster the whole dome of the rotunda. This has been a hell of a job, and we had to get a special Presidential order on it, in order to get it done. There had been all kinds of trouble. One of the men fell from the scaffolding, which is no patsy of a scaffold...and was seriously hurt. Now since the downpour of last night the darn roof is leaking. I have to go to New York tonight and try and straighten things out.[7]

By September 1937, however, the walls were prepared and the painting began. Marsh created slides of his detailed pencil drawings and projected them upon the corresponding wall space, tracing the outlines directly onto the plaster. He "pull [ed] in the longest hours I have ever heard of any artist working," praised Jones, "and has now completed in the course of about fourteen months a job that ordinarily would take three to four years." [8]

During the course of these difficulties, the threat of abolishing the whole project came not once, but two times. First in August 1937, when cuts in federal expenditure deemed the job too costly. Determined to complete the project, Marsh agreed to a position as "assistant clerk," earning a measly 90 cents an hour -- low even by depression standards -- while his assistants, artists on relief, took in a whopping $1.60 per hour.

A second resounding blow hit in August as well. Seven months after the designs had been officially approved, Joseph P. Kennedy, Chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, protested Marsh's prominent depiction of two foreign liners, the "Queen Mary" and the "Normandie," in his shipping epic. Kennedy said Marsh's mural should garner support for U.S. super liners and encourage American rather than foreign trade. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Kennedy proposed changing one ship's name to "the new passenger liner which we will probably commence building" and which "will be superior in many respects to foreign flag vessels." [9] Morgenthau decided it was too late for such artistic changes, especially since no such American liner existed. Conceding, Kennedy requested minor changes to the vessels and the display of more American flags. The only change Marsh would make was to slightly blur the name, "Normandie." But even from its place fifty feet above ground level, the name is quite legible.


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