Reginald Marsh

by Franklin Hill Perrell

 



 

Marsh experimented with oil paint, but found its opacity too restrictive as it did not readily permit building up of imagery through successive stages of drawing and tinting, a process which interested him. Watercolor, combined with underlying drawing, better enabled him to convey movement and salient detail. Marsh's discovery of tempera, in 1929, furthered his development, which he explained, "it opened a new world to me. Egg is a fine 'draftsman's vehicle and very easy to handle.The luminosity and clearness of drawing is preserved, yet a certain greasy quality of the yolk gives a 'fat, oily effect. Drying is instantaneous, and superimposed brush strokes are easily madeI put egg yolk on a kind of belt line production for a dozen years and chucked oil forever." [1] Marsh saw himself as a Renaissance painter, at least in terms of his understanding of pictorial structure, and to some extent in his manner of building or constructing his layered images. His imagery emphasized forms in the round, occupying an airy dimensional space, and with movement more baroque than classical. In an age where the tendencies in modernism increasingly emphasized the silhouette and flatness, Marsh moved in the other direction to spatial illusion.

The Whitney Studio Club gave Marsh his first exhibition by 1924, and he began to be represented by Frank Rehn Gallery in 1930. While Marsh continued to do illustration, especially for books, virtually throughout his career, he became increasingly identified as a fine artist. He pursued his career free from financial worry because of income from the estate of his grandfather who had made his fortune as a Chicago meat packer. Apart from regular purchases by Senator William Benton beginning in 1930, sales of Marsh's work were initially few. Nonetheless, his reputation continued to grow, and Marsh was elected an Associate of the National Academy in 1933, becoming a full member in 1943.

Marsh was forever educating himself, as well as extensively teaching at the Art Students League beginning in the 1930's. He painted from the nude model in his studio almost every day. He dissected cadavers at New York medical schools in 1931 and 1934, studied sculpture with Mahonri Young in 1935 and printmaking with Stanley William Hayter in 1940. On European trips, he made pen and ink studies of old master paintings, "free adaptations," which became the basis for his book Anatomy for Artists, published in 1945. Marsh also applied his knowledge of Renaissance art to mural projects for the Treasury Art Program during the WPA period. In 1935, he frescoed New York Harbor's ships and surrounding skyscrapers onto the enormous concave ceiling of Cass Gilbert's 1907 Beaux Arts' designed New York Customs House, adjusting perspective to its curve and the vantage point of viewers fifty feet below. After study with Jacques Maroger during 1940-46, he began using the maroger paint medium. In 1943, he began working with Chinese ink in the traditional manner in which a charcoal stick was ground into water to produce a thin grey wash. In the 1950's, Marsh used maroger, tempera, Chinese ink, or watercolor with ink interchangeably.

Marsh's remarkable comprehension of technique enabled him to capture the complexity of New York's congested streets and densely populated social scenes and the distinct identities of characters in multi-figure compositions. He was never without sketchbooks or camera to record his subjects on location. He typically used a Waterman's artist fountain pen and worked in 4 _ x 6" ring bound Morilla sketchbooks. Such sketches were traded with his models on the beach, in exchange for posing. Out the tall windows of the compressed and cluttered space of his studio at 1 Union Square, Marsh kept a pair of binoculars perched on the sill, in readiness for watching the pretty girls at the bus stop below. He worked indoors on his watercolors, temperas, or oils from the sketches that he brought back from sites throughout the city.

For Marsh, every day must have been a Joycean round of beach, bars, burlesque houses, opera, or stylish nightclubs. Marsh, never deviating from the role of artist reporter, could be part of the scene, but not of it. He played his role like that of a scribe or mascot, operating on the periphery of his subjects, maintaining an objectivity, and gathering evidence that he needed to organize into his art.

The chief subjects that would mark Marsh's entire career were addressed in the thirties. First, elaborate gilt theaters as a setting for striptease and burlesque, proffered an endless variety of scantily clad female forms, whose typically bland facial expressions contrast with their own undulating movement and the focus of their seemingly stunned male observers. In a spectacle of frustrating un-attainability, the men can look but cannot touch. While Marsh's depictions of women challenged his period's prudery and affirmed stereotypes of male fascination, his contrast of male inactivity with female animation also implied the mythic associations of female sexuality with a primal life-force.

In contrast are scenes of consummate dereliction in which hopeless bums panhandle on the Bowery or collapse, stupefied, against a wall or column. Drunks are also shown coexisting but mute in sordid saloons. In the artist's Bowery compositions, the introduction of an attractive young girl, expressive of vitality and well-being, draws attention to how far these men of the Depression era had fallen in status. In Marsh's street scenes, women are shown as attractive office workers and shoppers, still part of the economic system, and outnumbering the men.

 

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