Reginald Marsh (artist)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Reginald Marsh (14 March 1898 - 3 July 1954) was an American painter, born in Paris, most notable for his detailed depictions of life in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. He painted using egg tempera, a forgotten medium revived in the mid-twentieth century. He also produced many watercolors, 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. Although he was most famous for his sketches and paintings, he also produced series' of photographs and linoleum cuts. 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.

He 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. 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. While learning about the European Masters like (Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens) and being inspired by their work, Marsh met Thomas Hart Benton in one of the galleries in France. Benton known today as a social realist, and regionalist painter at that time was also a great student of the Baroque masters. Marsh saw the resemblance between Tintoretto’s famous works and Benton’s and was soon motivated to try to do the same.

When Marsh returned to new York City in the late 1920s after meeting Benton and learning from the "masters," he began to study with Kenneth Hayes Miller. Miller was a well known painter at the time and 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. As late as 1944 Marsh wrote, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student."

Marsh began to work with John Steuart Curry who was another working artist at the time after his time with Miller. Both Marsh and Curry took lessons from Jacques Maroger. Marsh met Maroger 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. Not only was Marsh influenced by the painters of the past, but also by what was right in front of him. Marsh loved capturing the the heart of New York City in all its forms.

Marsh at work

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. What was expressed in his work was the effort to move out of the great depression. Therefore, his paintings have a social message for the need of a change. Although the need for change didn't occur, and he was not successful in ending the terrible conditions he saw because the nation was in bits and pieces, Marsh’s work portrayed this and was successful because of it. His portraits depict 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. Marsh developed a love of crowds, of movement, form, and pattern, but at the same time he also depicted figures alone; often 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 especially women.

The Burlesque

In Marsh’s earlier years, the 1920s, he drew from burlesque theatrical acts. At this time vaudeville and burlesque acts were flourishing 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."

Marsh felt alive when painting the burlesque and discovered that he himself was an entertainer. He worked with movies for a little while and he made sure to capture all different sides to the theater, the rich and the poor and the women as revelers and powerful. 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. By being engulfed in the past but also in the present it was upon the Baroque masters that Marsh based his own human comedy.

Although Marsh was making money from his art, he still identified himself with the lower class members of society in the 1930s. Drawing people on the sidewalks and on street corners connected Marsh to the harsh reality of the life on the Bowery. Marsh simply believed that the lower class was more interesting to paint although he was not economically part of the lower class. In the 30s the hobo became a familiar figure in America because of the Great Depression that was sweeping the country. Marsh also painted other figures, such as the burlesque queens, the musclemen, and bathing beauties all of whom personified the 1930s for him. 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.

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. When Marsh looked at the contemporary world it reminded him of the world of the old masters. 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.

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.

Marsh was also drawn to the ports of New York. He would sketch the seaports, focusing on the tugboats coming in and out of the harbor. He loved to include the details of the boats such as the masts, the bells, the sirens, and the deck chairs to capture the true reality of the vessels. In the 1930s the harbors were extremely busy with people and commerce due to the country’s necessity for economic recovery. The Great Depression brought about a decline in raw materials and therefore the demand for those materials grew dramatically. This caused the chaotic need for trade along with bustling harbors, in big cities such as New York.

New York City Crowds and Women

Like 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 and distinguish them from the rest of the city.

Marsh was also obsessed with the American woman as a sexual symbol. This obsession began with his involvement in movie scenes and burlesque theaters. Marsh was successful with designing the sets, and curtains for Broadway theater productions. He also painted scenes from movies which showed contradictions between the Hollywood woman and the reality of the working class woman. In the 1930s during the Great Depression more than 2 million women lost their jobs and during this time, women were said to be exploited. Marsh’s work shows this exploitation mostly through the contrast of men and women and sex. Because Marsh is a painter of bodies many of his paintings depict women as half clothed, or fully naked, often big and strong. 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 men portrayed in Marsh’s paintings were portrayed as voyeurs, often watching the women.

The painting Fourteenth Street at the Museum of Modern Art, depicts a large crowd in front of a theater hall. This painting shows the clashing of classes and of gender in the 1930’s. It features a large community of people interacting but at the same time, it 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. Women are idealized in this work and they appear larger then the men. They appear untouchable and unattainable. While the women look active and powerful, 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.

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.”


During the 1940s and for many years Reginald Marsh became an important teacher at the Art Students League of New York. Marsh met American artist Roy Lichtenstein through the summer camp run by the Art Students League of New York. Lichtenstein was influenced by Marsh's subject-matter in his work and began to create his own famous artworks. Also in the 40's Marsh was making drawings for magazines such as Esquire, Fortune, and Life.

Although Marsh died in 1954, his artwork lives on in many places today. He is believed to be a great artist by some of his close freinds. 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 daily it was easier 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.

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



See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Reginald Marsh (artist)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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