Born 1898 in Paris to expatriate American painters, Reginald Marsh is best known for his paintings of the masses at their leisure in New York City. Financially secure, given an inheritance from a grandfather in the Chicago meatpacking industry, Marsh had a studio on 14th Street near Union Square from which he could observe the urban hub-bub as it was evolving in 1920s and 1930s New York. Here was a newly metropolitan population in contrast to the rural society of nineteenth-century America, and Marsh was thoroughly absorbed in recording it. Marsh’s paintings exude the energy of public life—its spectacles, whether they be the burlesque shows, subway crowds, 14th Street shoppers, sideshows or bathers on Coney Island. Coney Island was in fact a venue only recently available to working-class New Yorkers via the subway connection of Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1915. It is the nature of leisure for the working class—rowdy, desperate and flashy—that Marsh represented.
Clearly Marsh himself was not part of the class he depicted. Educated in New Jersey at the private Lawrenceville School and then at Yale, the painter had worked on the Yale Record as a draftsman. Coming to Manhattan after graduation, he was hired by the Daily News and then by the newly inaugurated The New Yorker magazine to draw the various entertainments the city provided. Marsh’s newspaper and magazine drawings captured the restless cacophony of New York. He regularly attended vaudeville and burlesque shows, illustrating the various acts performing there as well as the crowds outside the movie theaters, at the Coney Island parks and beaches, and down-at-their-luck on the Bowery. His encounter with Thomas Hart Benton at the Art Students League in 1929 encouraged him to render painted versions of these popular subjects. Equally important, Benton’s use of tempera, the medium of the Old Masters, allowed Marsh to translate his intensely graphic style into paint in ways in which oil painting had failed him.
Unceasingly at work as an artist in the city, Marsh sketched, photographed and painted constantly. In fact, at his death he left over 200 sketchbooks, thousands of photographs, watercolors, prints and daily calendars, all of which offered detailed accountings of his output. At the same time that he studied the streets, he studied anatomy; he was also looking at the paintings of Eugène Delacroix, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian whether at New York City’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art or on trips to Europe. What made Marsh’s art so thrilling, and continues to titillate the spectator, is the documentary realism of his art—the newspaper headlines, candy wrappers, and theater marquees—all carefully recorded and incorporated into his paintings and prints using compositions taken from the Old Masters. This combination creates a paradox in his work, one discussed and analyzed by art historians seeking to unravel the personal and social character of his art. Marsh’s consistent reuse of subjects and themes over a 30-year period speaks to personal obsessions as well as to social change in the role of women and men during the Great Depression.
This fusion of disparate elements and concerns expressed his own distance from his subjects, an attempt to overlay these raucous scenes with some measure of order. There can be no doubt that Marsh was attracted to the erotic, disorderly crowds he documented. He was an heir to Baudelaire’s flaneur, a voyeur afoot in the city, in this case a city situated within a historical period of economic trauma. Marsh’s paintings have been labeled ‘carnivalesque’ by the cultural historian Jackson Lears in the ways they challenge the morality of the American way of life. The painter’s voyeurism is evident in the many subjects that are themselves performance-based whether Coney Island sideshows or burlesque theaters with marquees and banners that call out to onlookers loudly offering them relief from their daily troubles. His paintings tilt up and out to the spectator, beckoning them to enter a labyrinth of bodies. Above all, the pull of Marsh’s subject matter, literally and figuratively, is his ‘woman.’ Marsh’s burlesque queen, his movie siren or the female carousel rider can be read as one and the same woman. This woman takes over Marsh’s works, inviting the spectator into the scene much as her fleshiness and gaudy costuming captivated the artist himself.
It is this woman that we see in Marsh’s iconic 1930 painting Merry-Go-Round. Seated on a carousel horse whose mouth is permanently agape with excitement, she is carried aloft and along by the centrifugal force of the carousel. Two other women are also visible in the composition. One is clearly ogled by a man to her right, just as the spectator (or Marsh) may have been ogling the central woman set apart by her turquoise dress and hat. The painting relates to a 1930 etching of the same subject (and a 1931 lithograph) illustrated in Norman Sasowsky’s 1976 catalogue of Marsh’s prints; at the time that Sasowsky wrote, however, the location of this painting was unknown. The subject also relates to such Old Master prototypes as Titian’s Rape of Europa wherein Europa is thrown off balance atop the bull spiriting her off, thus making Merry-Go-Round a characteristic Marsh revelation of an Old Master theme found in a contemporary setting! The graphic turmoil is unmistakable and akin to the erotic destruction of Delacroix’ 1827 Death of Sardanapalus which includes an ornamentally dressed horse at its left; the wind, the speed, the nature of abduction and seduction all coalesce in Marsh’s image to underscore layered meanings for the artist extant in the everyday. Marsh said he loved Coney Island because he could see thousands of unclothed bodies on the beach reminiscent of the great compositions of Michelangelo. Likewise, Coney Island rides such as the merry-go-round seen in Merry-Go-Round accessed legendary themes for Marsh pulsating with a life force that daily surrounded him.
Jackson Lears, “Keeping the Carnival in Town: Reginald Marsh and the Culture of the 1930s,” in Barbara Haskell, ed., Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York (New York City: New York Historical Society in association with D Giles Limited, London, 2012), 60-85.
Marsh’s etching 1930 Merry-Go-Round is illustrated and catalogued as no. 99 and is found on p. 147. Marsh’s 1931 lithograph Merry-Go-Round is illustrated and catalogued as no. 20 on p. 89. See Norman Sasowsky, The Prints of Reginald Marsh: an essay and definitive catalog of his linoleum cuts, etchings, engravings, and lithographs (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. Publisher, 1976).
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