REGINALD MARSH 1898-1954
The Normandie, 1953
Watercolor on paper, 30 x 50" (76.20 x 127.00 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 962-W- 115
Reginald Marsh is best known for his paintings of New York City: burlesque shows, Coney Island, the Bowery, movie houses, and elevated trains. His favorite place was Coney Island, where he rapidly sketched and photographed the bathers, an endless source for him of anatomies, postures, and compositions. But in the mid-1930s Marsh was engaged in mural painting, often depicting scenes of ships in New York Harbor. In 1936 he executed two panels for what is now the Federal Building in Washington, D.C. In August, 1936, the Treasury Relief Art Project hired him to paint the ceiling panels of the great hall of the Custom House on Bowling Green, New York City, designed by the architect Cass Gilbert. Between September 18 and December 21, 1937, he painted in fresco seco, or on dry plaster, eight small and eight large panels, the latter chronicling the arrival of three ocean liners in New York: the American Washington, the British Queen Mary, and the French Normandie.
In 1938, he executed three closely related easel paintings inspired by his work for the Custom House, in particular by the French Line's newest, fastest, and most luxurious transatlantic liner, the Normandie. One, an etching and engraving, of which Marsh printed twenty impressions on June 30, 1938, is entitled Battery (Belles), and shows a woman striding from the left side, holding her hat against the wind. Beyond the railing are a Dazzle Company tug, identified by the company "D" on its stack, and the unmistakable three stacks of the great ship. The harbor is identified by the Statue of Liberty in the far left background. Another, a large tempera (30 X 40 inches) entitled Belles of the Battery (The Sheldon Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Ind.), depicts a similar Battery view, except that the Statue of Liberty is between the figures and the tugboat stack, and the tug has an "M" to identify the company. The Butler institute's The Normandie is the third of this series. It is a larger watercolor, also originally entitled Belles of the Battery, and shows two women in the left foreground, one in the same striding, hat-holding posture as in the etching. As in the etching, there is Dalzell tug. Marsh was in the habit of painting in th( daytime and working on prints or photographs in the evening, so he was probably working on the print and the paintings at the same time. But when compared to the other two compositions, the watercolor The Normandie seems more spontaneous, more full of movement, suggesting it was executed first. The watercolor is also the closest to a rapidly executed sketch, showing two women walking by the tug with the Normandie in the background. Marsh's accuracy in representing modern ships is comparable to that of nineteenth-century marine painters such as Fitz Hugh Lane, who made the elaborate rigging of sailing ships part of their design.
As Lloyd Goodrich noted, the more crowded earlier compositions gave way, after his experience as a mural painter, to "more deliberate design," compositions with fewer figures and deeper spaces. The Normandie composition bears out this observation, and also provides a transition between his earlier mural work and the large, finished watercolors upon which Marsh concentrated in 1939 and 1940. The transition to simpler, somewhat more colorful watercolor compositions such as The Normandie may also have been stimulated by criticism of Marsh's temperas. Though critics noted that the temperas in his 1938 solo exhibition at the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, New York, were more colorful and better composed, they still noted a "veil of murkiness over each of the pictures."
A publicity photograph by Fritz Henle from Black Star Publishing Company among Marsh's papers at the Archives of American Art shows Marsh in his ninth floor studio at One Union Square. He holds brushes and palette in one hand and in the other, binoculars with which he observes the figures and crowds below. On the easel is The Normandie. The photograph is a key to the contrasts in Marsh's background and interests; for he was at once the recorder of the crowds of ordinary people in New York, and a well-educated and well-traveled admirer of the Old Masters.
The son of the artists Fred Dana Marsh and Alice Randall, Reginald Marsh was born in Paris, but the family settled in New Jersey when he was two. After graduating from Yale University in 1920, Marsh moved to New York where he worked as an illustrator for The Daily News. It was Kenneth Hayes Miller, with whom he studied at the Art Students League in 1927 and 1928, who opened his eyes to the possibilities of making the subjects of his drawings the subjects of his art. Marsh was a great draughtsman, but did not think he would be a painter, for as he recalled, "Painting seemed to me then a laborious way to make a bad drawing. . ." He disliked oil, but of watercolor he said, "Watercolor I took up and took to it well, with no introduction." In late 1929 Thomas Hart Benton and Denys Wortman introduced him to egg tempera on a gesso ground, which "opened a new world to me" because it was the perfect medium for a draughtsman. In 1930, having found his subjects and his techniques, Marsh joined the Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries and enjoyed artistic success and recognition for the rest of his life.