- 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A reminiscent tribute to a great American painter, with an evocative selection from thousands of unpublished sketches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
It is easy to say of any great artist that he did it all himself, and in America we are taught that this must be so. Marsh’s achievement was his own, of course, but he readily acknowledged what he owed to others. He was the most independent of men, but he was also the most persistent student. He never stopped studying, never regarded his knowledge as adequate, never ceased to wonder . I remember going to his studio one day and being introduced by him to a stranger. They were poring over bits of calligraphy—and dollar bills! Reg had found the man on Fourteenth Street, selling examples of penmanship (for a quarter he would write the purchaser’s name in fine italic script on a card). Reg had watched for a while and then said to him, “Where did you learn to use your pen like that?” The man replied, “I used to be an engraver at the mint in Washington.” Reg invited him to come up to his studio and immediately began to pay him for lessons in engraving.
His periods of study at the Art Students League were inevitable. (Where else, now or then, could an artist study?) But while brief periods with Sloan or George Luks were no more than extensions of his own predilections, his study with Kenneth Hayes Miller was critical. I am sure that it was partly his genteel relatives who impelled Marsh toward Miller’s class at the League. But it was also much more. Miller was the Academy of his time, and not to have submitted oneself to Miller’s examination was not to have gone through the mill. And Miller was of inestimable value to Marsh. He resolved at a glance the problem of gentility. He looked at Reg’s early, awkward burlesque sketches and at his more conventional landscape water colors and said, “These awkward things are your work. These are real. Stick to these things and don’t let anyone dissuade you!” In 1944 Marsh wrote, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student.”
Renoir said, “The only thing worthwhile for a painter is to study the museums,” and William Bentori reports that Marsh told him he had copied every great painting in Europe. In the sketchbooks there are scores of drawings after the great works of the Renaissance and baroque masters: Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Rubens, and Delacroix. On one of his tours of the European galleries he met Thomas Hart Benton, another great student of the baroque masters and a man who was as fluent with words as Marsh was tongue-tied. From Venice, Reg wrote a post card to Stewart Klonis: “Yesterday we ran into Tom and Rita Benton and today Tom and I went to the Scuola San Rocco. I never realized till now how much Tintoretto owed to Tom Benton!”
When an admirer said to Delacroix, “Master, you are the Victor Hugo of painting,” Delacroix replied, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I am a classicist, pure and simple.” Marsh would have said the same thing. Believing that the proper study of mankind is man, he decided that he needed to know more about anatomy. He arranged to take lessons at New York Hospital in the Cornell Medical School. This involved the dissection of cadavers. I asked him if he had learned anything from this. “No,” he said, “nothing at all. The only way an artist can study the subject is in the best anatomical plates in the best books. I asked them at the hospital who, in New York, knows more about anatomy than anybody else and they said it’s old Doctor So-and-so but he retired years ago. I asked where I could find him and they said, ‘Well, he spends every day in the library.’ I went there and I found him and I said, ‘What are the best anatomical plates and diagrams, the best anatomical books?’ The old man said, ‘Vesalius.’”
Marsh began to draw from these earliest of all anatomical plates and from the drawings of masters like Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, and to relate these to each other. Around this time I acquired a whole skeleton from the Cooper Union, where my wife was a supervisor in the museum. It was nothing but a disassembled bag of bones. I told Reg about it and said I didn’t think I would ever do anything with this treasure. He came at once to my studio (then on Bleecker Street), threw the gunny sack over his shoulder, and started off to Fourteenth Street, half a mile away. Until he called to tell us he was safely home we held our breath. What if he had met with an accident and the bones had been scattered over the street?
Marsh’s sketching was never a mindless copying of light and shade but a penetrating examination into the structure and form of figures and objects. One day in the early years of the Second World War he took the Staten Island ferry and was soon busy drawing the ships in the crowded harbor. Suddenly two men appeared and sat down, one at either side of him. “What do you think you’re doing?” they said. “Come with us.” They took his sketchbook from him, and at Staten Island they transferred to the ferry to Brooklyn, where they made their way to FBI headquarters. At the entrance they told him to wait on a bench while they took his sketchbook to an inner office. While he waited he reached into his pocket for a spare sketchbook and began to draw from memory the ships he had seen in the harbor. Finally the agents returned. They looked at what he was doing. His sketches from memory were as vivid and detailed as the original drawings. “Oh, go away!” the FBI men said to him. “There’s nothing we can do with you!”