Reginald Marsh blended the passion of the Ashcan painters for recording the vitality of the urban scene with a dedication to the study of human anatomy inspired by close study of Michelangelo, Raphael, and, above all, Rubens. For three and a half decades, from the 1920s to his premature death from a heart attack in 1954, Marsh returned again and again to his favorite New York venues, where he became a familiar figure, observing and recording the scene in the sketchbook that was his constant companion. Marsh’s favored locations were distinctly plebian and often gritty—the beach at Coney Island, the audience and performers at burlesque houses and theaters, the tumultuous sidewalks of Union Square, and the curbs and corners of the Bowery, a garish milieu of gloom and neon under the tracks of the Third Avenue El. His New Yorkers, though, were glorious time travelers from the Renaissance, jostling along the city streets, crowding the public beaches, and constituting the spectacle of modern urban life. In 1945, Marsh wrote, in his book Anatomy for Artists, “In spite of the advance in medical anatomical knowledge since the Renaissance, the art of drawing and the use of anatomy has declined. It is conceded that the highest development in the art of figure drawing was bound together with knowledge of anatomy. The artists of the Renaissance, … hardly challenged, never have been surpassed.”
Reginald Marsh was the son of artists and the paternal grandson of a wealthy Chicago meat packer, two circumstances that shaped the trajectory of his later life. He was born in Paris to Frederick Dana Marsh (1872–1961), a talented muralist, and Alice Randall Marsh (1869–1929), a painter of miniatures. (Both Marsh parents exhibited work in Paris Salons in the years 1895 to 1899.) Reginald Marsh’s choice of urban subject matter, his celebration of the modern city, his maritime murals in the United States Customs House, and even his interest in carousels can be understood, to some extent, as a second-generation revision of his father’s own enthusiasms. Reginald Marsh, like his father, was an avid sailor. At their summer home in Sakonnet, Rhode Island, the Marshes kept a beloved boat. Fred Marsh worked actively as an artist and muralist until 1928, when he appears to have inherited his father’s fortune and, relatively unscathed by the economic depression of the 1930s, retired to a series of homes in Florida, Maine, and Woodstock, New York. In Florida, Fred also collected derelict carousel horses, which he displayed in the showcase house he had constructed on the sand dunes.
Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh’s principal biographer, eminent critic, curator, and art historian, was a close boyhood friend of the artist from their days together when the Goodriches and Marshes both had homes in Nutley and Sakonnet. Marsh attended private schools before matriculating at Yale College, where he studied art. More important than whatever studio instruction he received, he honed his graphic skills as a contributor to The Yale Record, self-proclaimed as “America’s Oldest College Humor Magazine.” In Marsh’s senior year The Record was edited by William Benton, an undergraduate journalist who would make his fame and fortune in the fledgling advertising profession. He later became publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and served a term in the United States Senate from Connecticut. Benton, the student editor, was enthusiastic about Marsh’s keen eye and outstanding graphic ability, an enthusiasm which carried through to a lifelong relationship of friendship and artistic patronage.
Marsh graduated from Yale in 1920, degree in hand and planning to make a career in New York City as a commercial artist. He gravitated to the center of creative activity, the bohemian artistic, literary, and theatrical circles of Greenwich Village. In 1919, the summer before his senior year at Yale, Marsh had taken a class at the Art Students League. Through the 1920s he returned there periodically, studying briefly with George Luks, John Sloan, George Bridgeman, and most importantly, Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876–1952), who became Marsh’s lifelong mentor, friend, and substitute father figure. At first, Marsh worked as a freelancer. In 1922, he landed a regular stint as a staff artist for the New York Daily News, a three-year-old tabloid that advertised itself as “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” Marsh covered the vaudeville beat at a time of decline, when theaters were increasingly being given over to the new popular medium of motion pictures.
With his days largely free, in 1922, Marsh turned serious attention to the study of painting, returning to the Art Students League. In 1923, he joined the Whitney Studio Club. Located on West 4th Street, the club, a precursor to the Whitney Museum, had been founded in 1918 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as a social center and exhibition space for contemporary artists. Marsh supplemented his journalism income with theater design and curtain painting, contributing to Broadway productions as well as the Experimental Theater, Inc., a company that staged its work at the Provincetown Playhouse. At the Art Students League, Marsh met Betty Boroughs, a fellow student and sculptor who was came from a family of artists. Her father was Bryson Burroughs, Curator of Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; her late mother was the sculptor Edith Woodman Burroughs (1871–1916); her brother was Alan Burroughs, art critic and conservator, whose wife-to-be, Molly Luce, was a fellow student of Kenneth Hayes Miller. Marsh and Burroughs married in 1923 and lived in the Burroughs family home in Flushing, New York. In 1924, Marsh had his first one-man show of oils and watercolors at the Whitney Studio Club which had outgrown its original space and moved to more visible and larger quarters on West Eighth Street.
Marsh joined the staff of the newly founded weekly magazine, The New Yorker, in 1925, in time for its second issue, sharing an office with Peter Arno and Charles MacArthur. He worked there sporadically for seven years, writing theater and movie reviews and profiles as well as contributing drawings that helped to establish The New Yorker’s distinctive graphic style. That same year Marsh returned to Paris, the city of his birth, where he spent six months in intensive study of the Old Masters in Paris museums. Back in New York, Marsh enrolled briefly in Kenneth Hayes Miller’s class at The Art Students League. After another trip to Europe in 1928 for extended study of the Old Masters, in 1929, Marsh took a work space on West 14th Street. His studio was near busy Union Square and the low-priced shopping meccas of Ohrbach’s and S. Klein. The new location confirmed Marsh’s chosen subject matter of the public life of working class New York. He became associated with the Fourteenth Street School of artists, not a school, but a group of friends with studios around Union Square. Professional descendants of Robert Henri and the so-called “Ashcan School,” they were guided by the influence of Miller. In addition to Miller and Marsh, other artists associated with the label included Isabel Bishop, Edward Laning, arguably Guy Pene Du Bois, and the Soyer twins, Raphael and Moses. Although each artist developed an individual approach, all were determined realists who shared a common interest in depicting the fabric of daily life in New York.
A hub for mass transit lines that fan out through four of the city's five boroughs, Fourteenth Street proved an ideal base for Marsh. Personally shy, socially uncomfortable with the trappings of wealth, but distanced in every way from the experience of the working class, Marsh gravitated naturally to the rôle of the observer in the French flaneur tradition. He was never without his sketchbook and later on, a camera, recording the panorama around him in order to translate it into his own distinctive artistic idiom, a mix of fine art, illustration, and caricature in the tradition of Honoré Daumier. In 1930, when he began to use tempera, he at last found the means to express his creative vision. This was Marsh’s breakthrough year, heralding a decade when he produced the pictures for which he is best known.