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Reginald Marsh
Born March 14, 1898 (1898-03-14)

Paris, France

Died July 3, 1954 (1954-07-04)

Dorset, Vermont, United States of America

Nationality American
Field Painter
Movement Social Realism
Works Why Not Use the 'L'?, In 14th Street, High Yaller, Pip and Flip,Stockey's Bar
Influenced by Titian, Rembrandt, Thomas Hart Benton

Reginald Marsh (March 14, 1898 – July 3, 1954) was an American painter, born in Paris, most notable for his depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. He produced many watercolors, egg tempera paintings, oil paintings, Chinese ink drawings, and a number of lithographs and etchings.



Reginald Marsh was born in an apartment in Paris above the Café du Dome. He was the second son born to his parents who were both artists themselves. His mother, Alice Randall was a miniaturist painter and his father Fred Dana Marsh was one of the earliest American painters to depict modern industry. When Marsh was two years old his family moved to Nutley, New Jersey. He was able to attend prestigious schools in the states because his grandfather was a very well known man.



Marsh attended the Lawrenceville School and graduated in 1920 from Yale University. At Yale Art School he worked as the star illustrator for the Yale Record, the college newspaper. Marsh was noted to have fully enjoyed his time at Yale because he received a typical college experience. Marsh also secured full time jobs after graduation, he worked as a freelance illustrator, for the New York Daily News and for the The New Yorker. He also submitted illustrations to the New Masses, (an American Marxist journal published from the 1920s to the 1940s.)

Marsh did not really enjoy painting until the 1920s, when he began to study with other artists. By 1923 Marsh began to take painting more seriously. During his trip to Paris, he was able to see famous paintings at the Louvre and other museums, which fueled his excitement to paint. It was the first time Marsh had visited Paris since he had lived there as a child and he fell in love with what it had to offer him.[1] Marsh was impressed by the "old master" paintings he saw on a 1926 European trip. He returned with a desire to utilize the principles he felt were evident in the art of the Renaissance painters, particularly the practice of taking notes from observation of human subjects in their environments. Marsh then studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, John Sloan and George Luks at the Art Students League of New York, and chose to do fewer commercial assignments.


Marsh had been influenced by the drawings of Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo since he was a child. His father’s studio was full of reproductions of the old masters' work.[2] While exploring the works of European masters such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Rubens, Marsh met Thomas Hart Benton in one of the galleries in France. Benton, known today as a social realist, and regionalist painter, was also a great student of the Baroque masters. The resemblance Marsh saw between Tintoretto’s famous works and Benton’s motivated Marsh to try to paint in a similar way.[3]

When Marsh returned to New York City in the late 1920s he began to study with Kenneth Hayes Miller. Miller was a well known painter at the time and was teaching at the Art Students League of New York. Miller instructed Marsh on the basics of form and design in his art. He encouraged Marsh to make himself known to the world. He looked at Marsh's early, awkward burlesque sketches and at his more conventional landscape watercolors and said, "These awkward things are your work. These are real. Stick to these things and don’t let anyone dissuade you!" By the beginning of the 1930s Marsh began to express himself fully in his art.[1] As late as 1944 Marsh wrote, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student."[3]

Marsh began to work with John Steuart Curry after his training with Miller. Both Marsh and Curry took lessons from Jacques Maroger, whom Marsh met in New York City in 1940. Maroger, who was a former restorer at the Louvre, believed he had discovered the secrets of the old masters and was well known for his art work and significant contributions to his students. Maroger left behind lots of material documenting his work for Marsh and Curry to study. They adopted his ideas to get the same effect.[4] Not only was Marsh influenced by the painters of the past, but also by what was right in front of him. Marsh especially loved capturing the heart of New York City in all its forms.

Marsh at work

Marsh's etchings were his first work as an artist. He also produced lithographs, and in the 1940s he took up engraving. He kept careful watch of the technique he used for his prints, noting the temperature of the room, the age of the bath that his plates were soaked in, the composition, and the length of time the plate was etched. When making prints of the etchings Marsh recorded how long the paper soaked for, the heating of the plate, and the nature of the ink used. Marsh enjoyed experimentation with all his artworks and was therefore renowned for his unique techniques.[1] In the early 1920s he began to work with watercolor and oil. He did not take to oil naturally and decided to stick to watercolor for the next decade. Yet, in 1929 he discovered egg tempera, which he found to be somewhat like watercolor but with more depth and body. He also produced series of photographs and linoleum cuts.

Reginald Marsh’s style can best be described as social realism. His style emerged as one that strives to capture the human figure in the context of reality. Marsh’s work depicted the Great Depression, and a range of social classes that were heavily divided because of the economic crash. Marsh’s caricatures were people who had a crisis thrust upon them, which is why his work shows a loss of human integrity and control in all aspects.[5] Marsh developed a love of crowds, of movement, form, and pattern, but at the same time he also depicted figures alone, showing the division of social classes. Marsh’s main attractions were the burlesque stage, the hobos on the Bowery, crowds on city streets and at Coney Island, and women.[3]

The Burlesque

In Marsh’s earlier years, the 1920s, he drew from burlesque theatrical acts. At this time vaudeville and burlesque acts flourished throughout the country and were available all over New York City. The burlesque that Marsh captured can be described as raunchy and vulgar, but also comedic, and satiric. Marsh’s drawings depict chorus girls, clowns, theater goers and even strippers. Burlesque was "the theater of the common man; it expressed the humor, and fantasies of the poor, the old, and the ill-favored."[3] Marsh felt alive when painting the burlesque and discovered that he himself was an entertainer.

During Marsh’s trip to Paris in 1926, he continued his burlesque sketches. He found his likeness of the striptease comedy at many cafes around the city while still being influenced by the old masters. "It was upon the Baroque masters that Marsh based his own human comedy",[3] inspired by the past but residing in the present.

In 1930 Marsh was 32 years old living in New York, yet not starving as much of the country was because he had inherited his grandfathers money, besides having his own career. Marsh still identified himself with the lower class members of society, who were his preferred subject matter. Drawing people on the sidewalks and on street corners connected Marsh to the harsh reality of the life on the Bowery. In the 30s the hobo became a familiar figure in America because of the Great Depression that was sweeping the country.[3] Marsh also painted other figures, such as the burlesque queens, the musclemen, and bathing beauties all of whom personified the 1930s for him.[2]

Coney Island and Sea Ports

Marsh liked to venture out to Coney Island to paint, especially in the summer time. There he began to paint massed beached bodies.[6] Marsh’s deep devotion to the old masters led to his creating works of art in a style that reflects certain artistic traditions. His work often contained religious metaphors. Marsh’s crowd paintings are reminiscent of the Last Judgment, because of the masses of bodies tangled and weaved among each other. He also emphasizes the bold muscles and build of his characters, which relate to the heroic scale of the older European paintings. Marsh said "I like to go to Coney Island because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds—crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving—like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens." Through the techniques he had learned and connecting those techniques to what he saw, Marsh was able to capture characters of the present day and introduce them to the old masters whom he wished he knew from the past.[2]

In some of Marsh's Bowery sketches depicting bums on the streets of New York, there resembles what could be a Christ like figure collapsing. His burlesque women also resemble that of a classic Venus Pudica pose.[2]

Marsh was also drawn to the ports of New York. In the 1930s the harbors were extremely busy with people and commerce due to the country’s necessity for economic recovery.[3] The Great Depression brought about a decline in raw materials and therefore the demand for those materials grew dramatically, resulting in bustling harbors in big cities such as New York. Marsh would sketch the seaports, focusing on the tugboats coming in and out of the harbor, and capturing the details of the boats such as the masts, the bells, the sirens, and the deck chairs.

New York City Crowds and Women

As on Coney Island and in the seaports of New York, Marsh captured the crowds of the bustling inner city life. Marsh spent a lot of his time on the sidewalks, the subways, the nightclubs, bars and restaurants finding the crowds. He also loved to single people out on the trains, in the parks, or in ballrooms to capture a single human figure in isolation from the rest of the city.[3]

Marsh was obsessed with the American woman as a sexual and powerful figure. This obsession began with his involvement in movie scenes and burlesque theaters. In his work with movies he captured all different sides to the theater, the rich and the poor and the women as revelers and powerful.[3] In the 1930s during the Great Depression more than 2 million women lost their jobs, and women were said to be exploited sexually.[7] Marsh’s work shows this exploitation by portraying men and women in the same paintings: the women half clothed, or fully naked, often big and strong; the men as voyeurs, often watching the women.[2] These paintings share a relationship with the old masters, by portraying the raw sexuality of women. They were often erotic, and populated with heroic-like images.

The painting Fourteenth Street at the Museum of Modern Art depicts Marsh's interest in women. It illustrates a large crowd in front of a theater hall, showing the clashing of classes and of gender in the 1930s. It features a large community of people interacting, and singles certain people out, showing the socio-economic disruption of society and class. The women in the painting are depicted as strong and purposeful with large bodies. They appear untouchable and unattainable. In contrast, the men look like drunk hobos and are portrayed much smaller. The woman walking under the ladder is a large looming strong figure, while the man beneath her walks by on crutches and is slumped over.[2]

Marsh’s world is filled with display: movies, burlesque, the beach, and all forms of public exhibition. Men and women are both spectators and performers within a heavily sexualized world. And Marsh was clearly fascinated by both aspects of that world—almost always presenting its two sides in the same image.”[2]

Later life

During the 1940s and for many years Reginald Marsh became an important teacher at the Art Students League of New York, which ran a summer camp where Marsh's students included Roy Lichtenstein.[8] Lichtenstein was influenced by Marsh's subject matter in his work. Also in the 40s Marsh began making drawings for magazines such as Esquire, Fortune, and Life.

Shortly before his death he received the Gold Medal for Graphic Arts awarded by the American Academy and the National Institute for Arts and Letters.[1] Marsh died in Dorset, Vermont on July 3, 1954.


Many of his prints and thousands of unpublished sketches were found in his estate after he died. They revealed more of the true depth of his work. Because Marsh made good records of his work, often on a daily basis, it was easy to find his unpublished works and publish them. A set of prints that were acquired by William Benton from Marsh’s wife are now all in the William Benton Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, and the Middendorf Gallery in Washington DC.[1]

Marsh's murals in the rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, 1937

The art

In his etchings, for example Bread Line—No On Has Starved, (1932), Marsh concentrated in a journalistic style somewhat reminiscent of the etchings of Goya in which tragic human events are shown. Though seeming apolitical, Marsh was nonetheless drawn toward subjects that emphasized the social pressures and traumas of his time, whether by featuring the dispossessed of the American depression of the 1930s, or by exploring the glamorous advertising images used to sell products to women.

  • High Yaller, Private Collection, 1936
  • Tattoo Haircut-Shave, Art Institute of Chicago, 1932
  • Woman Walking, ASU Art Museum, 1945
  • A Paramount Picture, Collection of Marjorie and Charles Benton, 1934
  • In the Surf-Coney Island, Collection of Mr & Mrs. Lloyd Goodrich, 1946
  • Girl on Merry Go Round, Collection of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1946
  • Striptease at New Gotham, William Benton Museum of Art, 1935
  • Steeplechase, Collection of Edward Laning, 1954
  • Coney Island (Russia declares war on Japan), Collection of Marjorie and Charles Benton
  • Down at Jimmy Kelly’s, The Chrysler Museum, 1936


  • 1938, Solo Exhibition, Frank K.M Rehn Galleries, New York
  • 1997, Reginald Marsh at D.C Moore New York
  • 2003, April 18-May 25, 'New York City Drawings, Seraphin Galleries, Philadelphia
  • 2006, February 19- May 14, Reginald Marsh, Nassau County Museum of Art, New York


  1. ^ a b c d e Sasowsky, Norman. The Prints of Reginald Marsh : An Essay and Definitive Catalog of his linoleum cuts, etchings, engravings, and lithographs. 1st.ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1976.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Cohen, Marilyn. Reginald Marsh’s New York : paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs. New York: Dover Publications, 1983.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Laning, Edward. The Sketchbooks of Reginald Marsh. New York: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973.
  4. ^ Mayer, Lance, Myers, Gay, Old Master Recipes in the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's:Curry, Marsh,Doerner, and Maroger, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 4 (2002)21-42.
  5. ^ Masteller, Richard N. . Caricatures in Crisis: The Satiric Vision of Reginald Marsh and John Dos Passos. Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3(1989): 22-45
  6. ^ Laning, Ed. "Reginald Marsh." American Heritage 23(1972): 15-35.
  7. ^ Doss, Erika. Images of American Women in the 1930s:Reginald Marsh and Paramount Picture. Woman's Art Journal 4(1983): 1-4.
  8. ^ Roy Lichtenstein

See also

External links


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