Reginald Marsh 1898 —1954

Biography

Reginald Marsh was the consummate chronicler of everyday urban life, turning his discerning eye to the streets of New York. In countless paintings, drawings, illustrations, and sketches, he captured the city's modernity-electric lights, movie theaters, and billboards; its bustling city centers-Central Park, Coney Island, and Union Square; and its seediness-the down-and-out figures in the Bowery. When asked for his advice to young painters, he replied, "How to draw? Go out into the street, stare at the people. Stare, stare, keep on staring. Go to your studio, stare at your pictures, yourself, everything."

Born in Paris, Marsh's parents were both artists: Fred Dana Marsh, a painter whose work documented the construction of many New York City skyscrapers, and Alice Randall, a miniature painter. Marsh attended Yale University, and was the star illustrator for The Yale Record, the campus humor magazine. Upon graduation in 1920, he went to New York with the hopes of launching his career as a freelance illustrator. Two years later, he landed a job as a staff artist for the Daily News. In his first assignment, the series "Subway Sunbeams," he documented the humorous side of city life; the success of the series secured him a daily column, where he depicted the performers and attendees of the popular vaudeville shows. Years later Marsh wrote of the Daily News experience, "It was interesting work. . . . On Mondays I'd visit so many vaudeville shows I'd lose track of the number." At the same time, he began painting scenes of street life in New York in oil and watercolor.

By 1924, only four years after moving to New York, he had his first one-man show at the Whitney Studio Club, the gallery pioneered by Juliana Force. The following year he joined the staff of The New Yorker, a position he held for seven years. He provided "Profile" portraits and humorous illustrations, and he covered plays, movies, and metropolitan life in general. Marsh wrote of his newspaper career, "It took the place of an art school, and was very good training because you had to get the people in action, and sketch them quickly." (3)

This is not to say that Marsh had no formal training. During his senior year at Yale, he took classes in still life and antique drawing. His first year in New York he spent four months in John Sloan's evening drawing class at the Art Students League (1920-21), and in 1922, he spent a month each in the life classes of Kenneth Hayes Miller, George Bridgman, and George Luks, all at the League. Of these superb teachers, Miller became a lifelong mentor, friend, and confidante of Marsh. It was Miller who encouraged the young artist to paint the earthy vitality and social landscape of life in New York, subjects typical of American scene painting

In 1925, Marsh traveled with his first wife, sculptor Betty Burroughs, to Europe where he studied and copied the works of the Old Master painters such as Rubens, Rembrandt and Michelangelo, whom he particularly admired for their ability to organize large figure groups. Part of the vibrant New York artistic scene and a member of the Whitney Studio Club, Marsh developed close friends and colleagues. Thomas Hart Benton introduced Marsh to egg tempera, the medium in which most of his street scenes of the 1930s are painted. In the 1940s, he experimented with the "Maroger medium," an oil emulsion formula that recreated the effects of the Old Master painters.

While Marsh was very busy with illustration work, he grew increasingly interested in the city's poorer quarters, among the working poor and the unemployed-- along the waterfront, 14th Street, the Lower East Side, the Bowery, inside the subway, and along the railroad tracks that ran down 10th Avenue, a section called "Death Avenue." He continued to observe New York life-its highs and its lows-until his untimely death in 1954 at the age of 56. That year, shortly before his death, Marsh received the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the highest award in the American cultural world.

 

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