- 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A reminiscent tribute to a great American painter, with an evocative selection from thousands of unpublished sketches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 Yale, Marsh drew for the Yale Record . Lloyd Goodrich, a friend of Marsh from the days of their boyhood in New Jersey and the author of a new book about him, says that the Marsh Girl made the Yale Record the most successful college journal in America. Its editor, William Benton, later Undersecretary of State and senator from Connecticut, made Reg the art editor in 1920, during Marsh’s senior year. Benton remained a friend and patron throughout Marsh’s lifetime.
After graduation from Yale, Marsh came to New York and began to draw for newspapers and magazines. The new tabloid paper, the Daily News , paid him a thousand dollars a month, and from 1922 to 1925 he had a column of sketches in that paper in which he depicted vaudeville and theatre acts and nightclub turns, and gave each performance a percentage rating. When The New Yorker was started in 1925, Marsh began drawing for it in its second issue and was actively connected with the magazine through 1931. One day during this period Frank Crowninshield asked him if he would go out to Coney Island and make a page of sketches for Vanity Fair . Marsh later told me this was the first time he ever visited the place. Throughout his career he made many illustrations for other periodicals, including Life, Fortune , and Esquire , and for many books, such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders , Dreiser’s Sister Carrie , and Dos Passos’ U.S.A. He designed theatre curtains for John Murray Anderson’s Greenwich Village Follies and collaborated with Robert Edmond Jones on sets for Fashion, or Life in New York .
In his early work for the Yale Record and the Daily News , Marsh was influenced by Edmund Duffy, who was his roommate at Yale and whose later cartoons for the Baltimore Sun he greatly admired. All his life he studied the drawings of great English illustrators like Cruikshank and Tenniel. This background in illustration resembled that of John Sloan and other members of “The Eight,” the so-called Ashcan School, many of whom began their careers as illustrators in Philadelphia, and it was in the American tradition. Winslow Homer, for example, was an “artist-correspondent” for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War, before he ever began to paint.
Marsh’s concern with illustration involved him in the whole tradition of Western art. He knew that Giotto and Michelangelo had illustrated the Bible, that the artists of the Renaissance had taken their themes from Ovid, that Delacroix had derived his from Shakespeare. By adhering steadily to representation, Marsh was able to concentrate on what his work was about, on its story. For reasons that were essentially political, this concern with story and illustration became unfashionable in Marsh’s time. The disillusionments of the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 led many artists to shun every form of “subject matter” and to adopt “abstract” styles. These artists said, in effect, that their commitment to the cause of revolution had been betrayed, and since they no longer had any subject, they would learn to do without; they would henceforth restrict themselves to the manipulation of their medium, to Hans Hofmann’s “push and pull on the picture surface.”
I think Marsh was saved from this fate by a combination of circumstances. He was never political; he was intelligent, but he was never “intellectual.” He lived by his art, and his art had roots that reached back to a period earlier than universal compulsory education, to a time when the metaphor of art had to be acted out, not merely verbalized. This always meant a degree of vulgarity in his work, and it was a saving vulgarity. While many of his contemporaries sought refuge in the abstract, Marsh remained content to be entertaining. It is ironic that Marsh, who was willing humbly to illustrate words and tell stories, ultimately transcended the mere word and created a logos, while his contemporaries, many of them, ended as illustrators of the works of critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (as Mr. Rosenberg has been the first to admit). And no matter that these critical exercises were by their nature unillustratable and that the “abstract” canvas became more and more blank.
Tradition was easy for Marsh to come by. Not only were his parents both painters; his first wife was a sculptor and the daughter of artists (her father was curator of painting at the Metropolitan Museum). His second wife, herself a painter, was the daughter of painters. A recent biographical account correctly states: “He lived in New York, spending week-ends in Dorset, Vermont, almost every summer, and winter vacations visiting his father at Ormond Beach, Florida, where he painted watercolors.” But the tradition Marsh embraced was not the Genteel Tradition!