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Reginald Marsh

July 2024
17min read

A reminiscent tribute to a great American painter, with an evocative selection from thousands of unpublished sketches

Soon after Reginald Marsh’s death in 1954 an art magazine asked me to write about him. When I turned in the article the editor said he liked it but he had one reservation: “You say, ‘In my opinion he was the greatest artist of his time.’ Do you mean that? Greater than Picasso?”

“Yes,” I answered.

When the article came out it was headed “Homage from a colleague to the chronicler of New York life on paper and canvas marks the opening of a memorial exhibition at the Whitney Museum.”

At that time I felt keenly that both the magazine and the museum were there too late with too little, but time has made a tremendous difference. The fashions in art that the magazine promoted are now a bore, the museum’s exhibitions of contemporary art are a bad joke, and these institutions, seventeen years after his death, have less life in them than Reginald Marsh. I have a notion (a superstition, perhaps) that artists, the real ones, live out their productive lives fully and then die when their work is done. Institutions are less graceful. They die but they won’t lie down.

It was a constant pleasure to know Reginald Marsh. He was a man of extraordinary personal charm. Short and stocky, with red hair and freckles, he talked almost inaudibly out of the side of his mouth. The first time he visited my studio (this was in 1930, and we had just been introduced to each other) he spoke disparagingly of the Woodstock artists who were very big names at the time, being favored by Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Museum in its Eighth Street days. “They vegetate up there in the country and they never make any hell!” he said, in the manner of a Dead End Kid. He left me with the disarming impression that I had been in the company of a tough little gangster. I soon learned that this manner was entirely defensive and that in reality he was a sweet, shy man of great sensibility and cultivation. He seemed somehow vulnerable, and all his friends wanted to protect him from harm.

It was a pleasure to know him and it was also a privilege. For an artist it was the sort of privilege a religious person would find in association with a saint. He was endlessly creative; he produced as Nature produces, turning out, with marvelous abundance, drawings and paintings, illustrations, etchings, engravings, and murals; and all this work was accomplished with grace and apparent ease. He was inventive; the “Marsh Girl” was an archetypal figure, and many aspects of New York life became so intimately his own that it almost seemed he had thought them up—Coney Island, the Bowery, the burlesque. He was dedicated; he was always working. After the day in his studio on Union Square was over, he walked the short distance to his apartment on Fifteenth Street and spent the evening at his etching press. And when the work in the studio faltered, he put a sketchbook in his pocket, picked up a couple of artist’s fountain pens, and set out on a sketching trip. He would walk along Fourteenth Street and take the Third Avenue El to Chatham Square and the Bowery. Or in warm weather he would go to the West Side wharves and sketch the kids who dived into the Hudson and the tugboats that puffed along offshore. In bad weather he would take refuge in the burlesque theatre on Irving Place to sketch the performers and the audience. On fine summer days he would head for Coney Island.

I remember going with him to Coney Island one day. When we got to the boardwalk he led the way to a bathhouse, where we changed into swim trunks. We picked our way over the massed bodies on the sand and went into the crowded surf. Marsh dog-paddled, his head held high above the water, while he ogled the churning arms and legs, bellies and bottoms. After that we dressed and went to “Steeplechase—The Funny Place.” At the ticket booth we were waved inside without charge. (The management had left orders that Marsh was always to be admitted free.) We watched the swings and rides and chutes while Marsh made some notes in his sketchbook. Back in Manhattan we went to Sloppy Louie’s restaurant for dinner, and Louie picked up the tab (Marsh had drawn Louie’s portrait sketch for The New Yorker ’s, profile). Then we walked up the Bowery to Strokey’s Bar—and there our drinks were on the house. (A Marsh-style painting of the Bowery, featuring Strokey’s, hung on the wall behind the bartender. When we left, Reg told me the painting was a forgery. “But I don’t tell them that. They want to think I did it.”) Finally we took the El uptown, and we paid the full five-cent fare, though considering Marsh’s celebrations of the El we should have travelled as the guests of the railway.

His sketchbooks were the central fact of his career as an artist—I almost said of his life. He always used for his drawings and water colors the best paper he could find. For his sketchbooks he carefully cut this paper to a size to fit his coat pocket. He shaped a couple of pieces of cardboard for covers, punched holes through papers and cardboard, and with metal rings made a sketchbook of fine rag paper. He had a supply of Waterman’s artist’s fountain pens that held India ink. I believe he never went anywhere without these sketchbooks and pens, and he drew almost incessantly.

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.

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!

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!”

Studying his sketchbooks, one finds that certain subjects preoccupied Marsh all his life. The hoboes lying in the sun near the railroad yards become the derelicts he saw sleeping under the bridges of Paris, and these are transformed into the bums of the Bowery. Finally, all the world’s a stage, the burlesque stage. The clown of the circus and the comedian of the burlesque are the prototypes of all his men; the showgirl and the striptease artist are all his women. When Mayor La Guardia, in an access of propriety, chased the burlesque out of town, Marsh followed it to New Jersey. Stewart Klonis recalls how Marsh came in to the Art Students League, where he was teaching a class in drawing, and told Klonis he had just returned from Union City and the burlesque show there. “Since La Guardia closed them down here, they are scared over there, too,” he said. “They won’t allow cameras; they won’t even permit sketching. But I got around that,” and he took a tiny sketchbook, no more than three by four inches, from his pocket and showed it to Klonis. “I drew inside my pocket,” he said. “These won’t mean much to you, but they mean something to me.”

When I think of the importance of the burlesque to Marsh, I recall an act I saw at the old Haymarket on the West Side of Chicago in the early twenties. Before a backdrop depicting a city street two disreputable characters are exchanging obscenities when suddenly a pretty girl walks on from the wings and minces across, looking out at the audience, and exits on the other side. This apparition throws the drunken bums into great disorder. The girl reappears and crosses again. This time the effect is almost disastrous. With her third passage they are reduced to complete helplessness. This same girl walks down Marsh’s Bowery.

William Benton says, “One of Reg’s paintings I bought largely for the title. This is a picture of a couple going through the Tunnel of Love at Coney Island. The man looks popeyed and scared by the terrifying dragons and ogres. An old guard in a gray uniform dozes. The girl, a satiated blonde, looks as bored as the guard. She looks as if she’s been through the love tunnel a bit too often. The title of the picture when I bought it was The Sorrow and Futility of Man Before the Beauty of Woman . … After a few months, Reg came to me and wanted to borrow the picture to send to the Carnegie Exhibit in Pittsburgh. He changed the title and called it Eldorado . I told Reg that he couldn’t change the title—that I had bought the original title. He insisted. We never got this one settled.”

If burlesque provided Marsh with his basic form and pattern, he was following an old and fruitful tradition. Watteau had taken the cornmedia dell’arte as his pattern in much the same way that Marsh followed burlesque, and if Watteau’s picture is elegant and gracious and Marsh’s is vulgar and tawdry, it is the world that has changed. Artistically, Marsh was as refined as Watteau. He drew as well; his adjustment of means to ends was as subtle and perfect; his scope was greater. John Lahr, in his biography of his father, who had been a burlesque comedian in his early days, has written that “the clown profanes the world in order to define the sacred.” I believe Marsh’s work tells us more about the Decline and Fall of the American Empire than that of any other artist in any medium.

Only Edward Hopper was as minatory. I recall a big gallery of Hopper’s work at the Biennale in Venice twenty years ago. (I had the place to myself. I believe Hopper’s work is meaningless to Europeans.) As I went from one painting to another I became more and more uneasy. I left the gallery and sought fresh air outside. Then I went back to try to discover what made the work so disturbing. There was of course the awful lower-middle-class boredom, the lifeless edge-of-town pall, the familiar Edward Hopper environment. But then I discovered something I hadn’t noticed in Hopper’s work when I had seen his rather rare paintings one at a time. In nearly every picture there was a black hole, a bottomless pit. It was the darkness where the highway disappears into the trees or the railroad track enters the tunnel, and it was as if all the air in the gallery were being sucked out into these vents. Hopper’s America is a place of death.

I think Marsh’s quality is more profoundly unsettling than Hopper’s because Marsh was so much more abundant. When one looks at a painting by Hopper one wonders, “Where is everybody?” And then with Marsh one finds, “They’re all here !” But as Francis Bacon observed, “Little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

Marsh worked very hard and he accomplished his mission. With the advantage of hindsight I think I should have realized that he was nearly done. He said to me one day, “I’m beginning to repeat myself.” On one of my last visits to him I found him at work on familiar subject, the Coney Island steeplechase. A British sailor and a girl are astride the wooden horse that races along a rail. The girl is blithe and smiling, as usual, but the sailor has died and the horses in a medicine Triumph of Death. Its eyes are rolling, and its nostrils are distended. “I can’t finish it,” Marsh said. “It’s dead and I’m going to throw it away.” He had taken a gray pigment and painted out the background, leaving sailor, girl, and horse isolated. “Don’t throw it away,” I said. “Give it to me.” He handed it to me as if he were glad to be rid of it. I think that with this painting he had demolished the form which had sustained him. A change of title wouldn’t serve now. La Comédia è finita .

The World of Reginald MARSH

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