- Historic Sites
A reminiscent tribute to a great American painter, with an evocative selection from thousands of unpublished sketches
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
At the time of his sudden death in Vermont in 1954 his wife, the artist Felicia Meyer, asked me to keep an eye on his studio, across the street from my own. It was a place I was very familiar with, having visited him there on countless occasions. I found it exactly as he had intended to return to it in a few days’ time. (He hated the country!) It was in that orderly disorder that is typical of artists’ studios. I entered it with sadness, knowing I would never find him there again. It was a small studio but one that exactly suited his needs. On the top floor of an old commercial building at the corner of Fourteenth Street and University Place, it commanded a view of Union Square. I went to the window and looked out, remembering how Reg used to pick up his binoculars and peer out over the view, catching glimpses of the crowded streets, the great equestrian statue of Washington at the entrance to the square, S. Klein’s emporium beyond, and the Consolidated Edison tower looming over all. I remembered how he would discover a group of nearly naked girls sunbathing on a roof across the square; or perhaps we would catch sight of someone run over by an automobile or truck in the street below and would watch while police cars and an ambulance hurried to the scene.
I turned back to the studio, where in his absence his easel was strangely empty. I looked up at the wall nearby and was reassured to find there that little painting which he kept as a sort of mascot--one of his girls. She had been there for years, changing constantly but ever the same, a talisman, pert and bouncy. She was one of the touchstones of his life. Every evening when it was time to go home he looked up at this little painting and brought her down to the easel for a few minutes while he reworked her with the last remaining pigments on his palette. I wonder where she is now. When I last saw her she was many inches thick!
This little studio contained his workroom (the easel occupied most of it). First, an entrance area with chests of drawers and filing cabinets. From this a narrow stairway led to the small gallery on the roof that he used mainly for the storage of paintings, hundreds of paintings in cabinets behind wooden doors. These doors were plastered with the blackbordered death notices that the National Academy of Design sends out to its members.
Returning to the filing cabinets below, I looked into them. One big architect’s file contained his wash drawings on “elephant” and “double-elephant” Whatman papers. One after another I held in my hands big drawings of all his favorite subjects, almost always with another great drawing on the other side of the sheet. Then I turned to the cabinets where his pocket sketchbooks were filed and began to look through them.
I discovered that he had filed this series of sketchbooks in strict chronological order over the years, beginning in the early 1920'$ and continuing until his death. I had thought I knew them well, but I realized I had taken them for granted and that they were far richer than I had supposed, much as I had always admired them. I had thought I knew him , but here I found him as he had known himself. I spent the following days poring over these sketchbooks, beginning with the early pencil drawings and watching the development of the pen-and-ink line that became his supreme medium. I sat with him in the sidewalk cafés of Paris, met Mahonri Young and Llewelyn Powys and John Rothenstein, went to the Folies-Bergère and the Cirque d’Hiver, and strolled along the Seine. I returned with him to New York and the beginnings of his favorite subjects, the burlesque and the speakeasies of the late twenties. In these pages I met his friends and acquaintances, went with him to the theatre and to parties (he said to me one day, “When I feel neglected at a party, I reach for my sketchbook and soon everybody is gathered around, watching me draw!”), sat beside him in the subway and the El and on the Staten Island ferry, walked along Fourteenth Street and the Bowery, explored the railroad yards and the waterfront. It was a pictorial diary such as no other artist, I believe, has left behind him, at least not over such a period of time.
Marsh was born in Paris in 1898 in an apartment above the Café du D#8217;f4me. His parents were both artists, his father a successful mural painter and his mother a miniaturist. There was plenty of money (Grandfather Marsh had been a rich Chicago packer), and Alice Randall and Fred Dana Marsh were living the life of genteel expatriates. Back in America, Reginald grew up in Nutley, New Jersey,andNewRochelle,New York. He attended the Lawrenceville School and Yale. This background was quintessential New York, but upperclass New York, not the New York of the slums and the ghettos. Of another Yale man, Cole Porter, a biographer has written, “Like any Keys man, he had a certain curiosity about the gutter,” and so did Marsh. He once told me that when he was a boy leading a sheltered life in a big house in New Jersey, he used to stand in the windows, looking down the long slope of the lawn toward the distant railroad line. There at the bottom of the yard on summer days hoboes would be sprawled out on the grass. Reg would look out from his windows at these tramps, wondering what sort of men they were and what lives they led. I think he went on wondering all his life.