Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
Reginald Marsh’s art was a rare combination of first-hand realism and ordered design. From first to last it was based on draftsmanship. He drew constantly, unceasingly. A prodigious worker, he expressed himself in many mediums: oil, tempera, watercolor, fresco, pencil, Chinese ink, lithography, etching and engraving. His printmaking began early in his career and lasted most of his life. In certain respects his prints embodied the graphic essence of his art at its purest form. Marsh’s subjects were drawn largely from the multitudinous life of New York City. He loved and knew the city as few artists have. His art centered on humanity, the human animal in his infinite variety. Wherever the crowds were thickest he found his themes: the streets and their hurrying throngs, the subway and el, the lower East Side, burlesque, night clubs, Coney Island beach with its swarming thousands, the gaudy dream world of Luna Park. His social range was wide, from Bowery bums to café society, from dime-a-dance joints to the Stork Club.
The popular pursuit of pleasure fascinated him: sex as publicly presented and the magnetic power of the female body. In burlesque houses and dance halls, on the streets, on the Coney Island beach, he found the human figure in all its beauty, ugliness and vitality. His realism was uncompromising, picturing human beings without false glamour or romance. Humor was always present, often mordant, and a relish for the grotesque, though not as broad as caricature. While he never subscribed to the dogmas of the social protest school, he portrayed with complete authenticity the seamy side of city life—derelicts, drunks, dwellers in flophouses. Without sentimentality, these pictures were poignant documents of human tragedy. Compared to his predecessors of the Ashcan School, his realism was more drastic, more aware of human misery, of the evil that lurks in city streets. Marsh’s reputation as a printmaker was considerable during his lifetime. And after his death in 1954, his prints became increasingly rare. After his death in 1954, his available prints became increasingly rare. Today, preservations of some of his finest plates are housed by museums, print rooms of libraries and private collectors. Marsh had remarkable powers of realistic observation. His grasp of character – in faces, bodies, objects – was innate and unerring.
His compositions were crowded with forms, and alive with movement – that rarest of plastic qualities. Marsh’s absorption in the contemporary scene was equaled by his knowledge of the great art of the past, a knowledge stimulated by his teacher and close friend Kenneth Hayes Miller. He studied the old masters as intensely as he did his favorite city. His fullest admiration was for the supreme figures of the High Renaissance and the 17th century. Like them, he conceived of pictorial art as design of sculptural forms in three dimensions. His design in its rich profusion of forms and it dominating rhythmic movements was baroque rather than classic. Marsh’s career as a printmaker began in the late 1920s. For some years he worked in both lithography and etching, but by the early 1930s he was concentrating on etching, in which he produced many of his strongest prints, paralleling his paintings and watercolors. Then about 1936 he began to work in the ancient medium of engraving on copper, in which the line is cut by hand into the plate, instead of being etched with acid. Engraving is a challenging medium, calling for unusual manual control, but it proved particularly sympathetic to Marsh’s direct graphic style, and in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he used it more than etching.