The genre scenes of the American painter and print-maker Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), often showing the seamy side of city life, reflected his acute powers of observation.
Both of Reginald Marsh's parents were painters. His father was one of America's first painters of industrial scenes. Reginald was born in Paris; the Marshes returned to America when he was 2, settling in Nutley, N. J. He attended Yale, then settled in New York in 1920 and began working as a free-lance artist. Eventually he became a staff artist for the Daily News and the New Yorker. He thought of himself as an illustrator, not a painter, until, in 1925, he went abroad for several months and copied paintings by Rubens and Delacroix. Back home, Marsh dabbled in radicalism, contributing to the New Masses during the 1930s.
Marsh worked in a variety of media. His first paintings were watercolors. In 1929 he worked in the egg-yolk medium, getting his lights from the gesso ground. Print-making went along with his painting. In the late 1920s he tried lithography, then changed to etching; in the 1940s he took up copper engraving. During the 1930s he did mural paintings and in 1935 decorated in fresco the Post Office Building in Washington, D. C., and the Custom House in New York City. In the 1940s he used oils frequently. Also during that period he used Chinese ink on paper, sometimes combined with egg tempera.
A part of Marsh's reportage art touches on social commentary. His scenes of the Bowery focus on homeless and beaten people. Tattoo and Haircut (1932) features a hunched cripple. Vagrants huddle in doorways beneath the tracks of the elevated train, against a sign advertising a shave-haircut for 10 cents and 20 cents. The Bowery shows crowds of vagrants standing forlornly beneath rows of hotel signs, their arms crossed or their hands in their pockets.
Marsh was attracted to the noise and movement of New York City. He liked to depict crowds pursuing public pleasures at theaters, burlesque houses, dance halls, and beaches. His figures are imbued with a bawdiness, a sensuousness, and often a sleaziness. His attraction to crowds went with his love of spectacles. In 1937 he defended public burlesque, and when it was banned in New York, he followed it to New Jersey. Among his burlesque subjects is Minsky's Chorus (1935). His beach scenes usually show healthy young people sunning, wrestling, embracing—unabashed in their exuberance, as in Negroes of Rockaway Beach (1934). Anatomical drawing was a lifelong interest. His work also reveals a knowledge of Renaissance compositions.
A catalog of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Reginald Marsh (1955), is informative and well done. It is based on an exhibition of 160 works, about one-third of them illustrated in the catalog. See also Norman Sasowsky, Reginald Marsh: Etchings, Engravings, Lithographs (1956). □