Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on February 16, 2006 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Nassau County Museum of Art. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition Reginald Marsh to be held at the Nassau County Museum of Art. February 19, 2006 - May 14, 2006. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
by Franklin Hill Perrell
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), one of the leading 20th century American artist recording urban life, is distinguished for subjects almost exclusively of New York. Turning his back on modernism, he adapted the Renaissance ideals and techniques of Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens to New York's colorful and flamboyant characters of the Bowery, 14th Street, burlesque halls, movie theatres, saloons, subways and beaches, especially Coney Island. He knew the city thoroughly, and he found its "dumps, docks and slums, all wonderful to paint." Its streets and architectural details, signage of movie marquees, bizarre amusement halls, all became the venue for Marsh to develop his narrative with the figure. No artist was more attuned than Marsh to voluptuous feminine pulchritude or macho muscle-builders. He portrayed a New York brimming with life, vitality, and more than a hint of sexuality.
Life and Art of Marsh
How apt for a successor to Lautrec, Forain and Daumier, that Reginald Marsh was born, 1898, in Paris, to American artist parents, in an apartment over what later became the Cafe du Dome. His father, Fred Dana Marsh, was a painter-muralist known for urban industrial subjects, and his mother, Alice Randall Marsh, a miniaturist. The family returned to the U.S. two years later and settled in Nutley, New Jersey, then a neighborhood that attracted artists and writers. The future curator at the Whitney Museum, Lloyd Goodrich, grew up with Marsh and was his closest childhood friend. Marsh's father's large studio was filled with wax or clay maquettes used for his work and reproductions of old masters. In this household where art was a natural pursuit, Marsh began drawing at age three, though his father cautioned him that art was not a "paying profession."
Educated at a military academy in New Rochelle, then the Lawrenceville School, and finally Yale, Marsh found academic art study dulling, but flourished as a student illustrator for the Yale Record. There, his classmate William Benton (later famed Benton & Bowles advertising executive and Connecticut senator) arranged for him to be paid a secret stipend of $50 a month. Upon graduation, Marsh began his artistic engagement with New York doing caricatures and cartoons for the Daily News including a daily vaudeville column (with the shows rated by quality) and portraying spots around the city like the subways. When The New Yorker was started in 1925, Marsh became one of the first on the magazine's staff and continued until 1931. In 1923, he married sculptor Betty Burroughs, the daughter of Metropolitan Museum curator and artist Bryson Burroughs. Marsh moved to their family house in Flushing until the couple divorced in 1933. Marsh was remarried in 1934, to Felicia Meyer, a painter from Dorset, Vermont, also the child of artists.
Early in the 1920's, Marsh first considered becoming a serious painter impelled by study at the Art Students League which continued throughout that decade. There, he gained an increasing awareness of technique and sensed the possibility of elevating the "low life" topics he had illustrated into fine art by using the formal underpinnings of traditional art derived from the old masters. Studying with a succession of teachers including John Sloan and George Luks, he was especially encouraged by Kenneth Hayes Miller to realize his artistic identity. Miller's approach differed from the other Ashcan artists in that he deliberately integrated classical compositional structure into his contemporary subjects. Miller's studio on Union Square became the locus of a group, henceforth known as the Fourteenth Street School, which included Marsh (who rented his first studio there in 1929), Isabel Bishop, the Soyers, and Edward Laning.
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