Ajax loader
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 7

In 1994, Curator Jan Ramirez and others at the Museum of the City of New York wove together the variety of sketches, photographs, and watercolors in the museum’s collection for an exhibition demonstrating how Marsh conceived and executed the Custom House murals. [xiv] It is evident from sketches and watercolors that Marsh rejected certain formats in favor of others. For example, “Version #1” for the mural was to include a crowd scene of passengers watching from the deck as the liner entered New York harbor, but this changed into The Press Interviewing a Celebrity. Sketches depict varied arrangements for placement of the Statue of Liberty in the panel originally visualized as “Liberty” and “Immigration.” Immigration, however, would drop out as a theme. [xv] In a watercolor sketch of the Ambrose lightship with an ocean liner behind it, the lightship rambunctiously bobs forward in the choppy waters and into the viewer’s space. The liner behind it expands beyond the borders of the panel as if too enormous to be enclosed. In the final version, the liner is laid out more symmetrically and appears in its entirety while the Ambrose settles somewhat more calmly in the waters. Rather than Unloading Cargo, sketches show the original panel as loading cargo. In the first design, the pilot ship responsible for bearing the pilot to the liner to steer it comfortably into port was on the reverse side. Marsh also added figures once he nearly completed a panel. Thus Marsh constantly invested his mental and physical energies into the visual narrative of the mural cycle. .................................................................. [xiv] Jan Seidler Ramirez, “The Making of a Mural: Reginald Marsh at the U.S. Custom House,” Museum of the City of New York, October 7, 1994–March 27, 1995 (Exhibition text, Institutional Archive). This exhibition was contemporaneous with the reopening of the US Custom House as the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. From photographs in the MCNY collection, it seems that the artist had a model of the ceiling helped him to create the finished panels, especially given the curvature of the walls. See letter to Marsh from Olin Dows, Chief of T.R.A.P., indicating that William B. Owen is having “a scale model made of the dome” to help “in facilitating study of the problem of the curved space.” Olin Dows to Reginald Marsh, December 9, 1936, pp. 24–25, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archive of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276550. The many photographs Marsh took of his sketches for the mural panel in the MCNY collection suggest that Marsh used this model and photos of paintings and sketches to help formulate compositions. Marsh’s father used maquettes to create his murals of skyscraper construction in the early twentieth century. See notes 32 and 33. [xv] Oswald E. Camp, Superintendent, US Department of the Interior, National Park Service to Reginald Marsh, June 12, 1937, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 47, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276551. This letter gives Marsh exact details of the Statue’s torch from the department that oversees the Statue of Liberty.

ID:
76.24.5
[Ambrose Lightship]
1937
paper (fiber product)
watercolor (paint)
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1976.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 8

The New York harbor was clearly an archetypal setting for Marsh, one within which to evoke the excitement, beauty, and heroic nature of American maritime industry—transportation and trade—as a continuing fact of patriotic or nationalist pride, even though at the time, as Ramirez wrote, the shipping industry was experiencing a slump. [xvi] Nevertheless, numerous ships from abroad still entered the New York harbor, the largest and most active in the country, daily. Marsh’s sketches for the panels show that he always visualized it within the trapezoidal shapes of the building. That is, he never conceived his plans separate from the building’s function and meaning as the port of entry into the United States. In addition, the mural cycle from the start was about the ships, with people appearing in very small scale in relation to them. Men crawl up the sides of boats and work to secure their position and that of the boats through masts, rigging, and pulleys, but the oceanic vessels they board or climb and the ceaseless energy of ocean and sky ultimately minimize them. Indeed, much of the drama of the cycle derives from the highly orchestrated relationships that govern maritime life—from the functionality of a tug to the modernism of a liner. When the ocean liner enters the harbor waters, other smaller boats become responsible for guiding it; at this point, the enormous liner must depend on these other vessels to dock safely in its berth. The Ambrose lightship, for example, has a prime location at one of the two ends of the elliptical ceiling—the other taken by the Statue of Liberty and the Queen Mary. These large, oceangoing vessels were entering into America through the New York harbor, and the Ambrose lightship showed the way by communicating with light signals to vessels many miles off. The lightship illuminated passage through the harbor just as surely as Liberty’s torch across the rotunda metaphorically illuminated freedom. Here New York City, marked by the presence of the Statue of Liberty, constitutes America, and the many American flags (much desired by T.R.A.P. officials) signify this. The dramatic choreography of this voyage into American waters, the boats, water, and skyline are enhanced by Marsh’s vivid attention to smoking stacks, boundless waves, and abundant clouds—all evident in watercolors for the project in the museum’s collection. .................................................................. [xvi] Ramirez, ”The Making of a Mural”, Exhibition text. MCNY Institutional Archive. See note xiv.

ID:
X2012.54.8
[Murals in the Rotunda of the United States Custom House.]
ca. 1937
gelatin silver print
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 9

The smooth integration of the various types of vessels that make the harbor work—cutters, lifeboats, dinghies, liners, fireboats, all necessary for an efficient port—comprise an “industrial” class system that works for the benefit of all. The dockworkers, pilots, crew, coast guard, and even the passengers and press, are all part of an oceanic event, and their collective labor supports American commercial life—or capitalism. In this way, the murals work with the earlier program of the Custom House building, which, according to Cass Gilbert’s plan, was to symbolize “the civilization, culture, and ideals of our country.” [xvii] Marsh’s murals extol American ingenuity, using a cast of nautical actors and activities to highlight the “machinery” of it all. Indeed, the shift from loading to unloading a car suggests America’s ability to accrete, accommodate, and prosper. In the 1930s, Americans especially identified with the spirit of progressive technology or modernity. In Horizons in Industrial Design, the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes wrote: When automobiles, railways cars, airships, steamships or other objects of an industrial nature stimulate you in the same way that you are stimulated when you look at the Parthenon, at the windows of Chartres, at the Moses of Michelangelo, or at the frescoes of Giotto, you will have every right to speak to them as works of art. [xviii] .................................................................. [xvii] Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, The Landmarks of New York (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), 467. [xviii] Jonathan M. Woodham, Twentieth-Century Design (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 67. Is it possible that the car in “Unloading Cargo” is a Hudson, humorously placed next to Hudson the explorer? There are photographs taken by Marsh of a car being unloaded from the Normandie.

ID:
76.24.48
Docking.
1937
paper (fiber product)
watercolor (paint)
H: 15 1/2 in, W: 22 1/2 in
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 10

The relationship of the explorers to the larger panels in the cycle likewise elucidates interdependent systems of history, art, and life. Marsh chose to paint the explorers not as portraits but as statues done in grisaille, sometimes borrowing likenesses or costume from Old Master paintings if there was no available portrait of the man. For example, Marsh used a Franz Hals portrait for Henry Hudson and Rubens’ Maximilian II for Adriaen Block. Presenting the explorers as tromp l’oeil statues or living monuments and not as lifelike portraits was an interesting artistic choice. It places these men in an aesthetic and historical past while making the panels of the contemporary harbor more insistently about the present. Marsh utilized the curvature of the panels to heighten the movement and breadth of ocean and sky opening up the interior of the rotunda to the outdoor seagoing world as much as the real skylight above does. The alternating angles, sizes, and positions of the boats, particularly the huge scale of the liners, create dramatic surges in and out from panel to panel that surround and activate the ceiling, connecting one panel to the next via color and movement. Contrasted with the monochromatic explorers, the predominant blues of sky and sea in the panels heighten the immediacy of the very modern transatlantic liners, the Queen Mary, the Normandie, the Bremen, and the SS Washington. The boats resound with vitality and robustness against these explorers. The explorers recall the glory of past exploration and that glory is alive and resident in the American harbor. [xix] Playing with levels of aesthetic reality, the murals of liners and explorers represent historical stages or metaphors of teleological progress. The viewer’s eye moves from the real plaster of the building with the embedded names of the explorers to the tromp l’oeil of the stone statues who even overstep their niches to the outdoor reality of ocean, sky, and ships bound into the walls by fresco secco. Past and present combine in this maritime panorama making it timeless and timely, monumental and contemporary. .................................................................. [xix] Marsh’s initial plan was to have the explorers standing on their galleons. One suggestion was that this was too difficult to portray accurately. But a letter found in his correspondence regarding the murals indicates that T.R.A.P. officials also rejected the idea. Cecil H. Jones, Acting Chief, T.R.A.P. to Reginald Marsh, January 28, 1937, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 6, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/treasury-department-art-projects-276551.

ID:
76.24.62
Hudson. [Sketch of Henry Hudson]
1937
graphite pencil
paper (fiber product)
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1976.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 11

Marsh’s very insistence on the “real” or present in the murals opened them to controversy that connects them in broader ways to 1930s America. As art historian Karal Ann Marling has written, government-supported murals were paintings last: “First, it [a mural] was a depiction of objects and scenes, a picture, a symbol, an event . . . a forum for discussion of national issues, a window on times past and times to come, a mirror of current anxieties and aspirations.” [xx] Joseph P. Kennedy, the first head of the recently formed United States Maritime Commission (an executive agency created by the Merchant Marine Act of June 1936), complained to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, that too many of the liners in the Custom House murals flew foreign flags, a critique published in newspapers at the time. Kennedy’s comments quite literally show how government patronage actively favored nationalistic mythologies in the murals. Morgenthau supported Marsh’s murals as they were. The foreign liners, in fact, could only increase a viewer’s awareness of America’s luminous place within the shipping world. The RMS Queen Mary, introduced in 1934, held the Blue Riband, a record for transatlantic speed in 1936, and to exclude it would have compromised the international character and importance of the New York port. The French liner Normandie (winner of the Blue Riband a year later) was then the largest and most fabulously modern of ships with a decorative interior of singular renown. These liners, boasting swimming pools, gyms, and exquisitely designed dining rooms that could seat hundreds, typified luxury travel during the period. Kennedy’s discomfort at foreign presence in the murals, however, can be tied into the brewing isolationist debate of the 1930s and early 1940s which was described by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. as among the most virulent in American politics. It involved the Ludlow Amendment to the Constitution, which was introduced several times from 1935 to 1940 and called for a national referendum on a declaration of war. According to a Gallup survey, the Amendment garnered the support of over 70 percent of Americans who wanted to stay out of any European conflict. In fact, Marsh attempted to minimize the presence of foreign ships by painting over the name of the Normandie but the paint later cracked off and revealed it. Nevertheless, the very sensitivity to foreignness in the mural signifies how embedded and embroiled public artworks and politics were. [xxi] .................................................................. [xx] Marling, Wall-to-Wall America, 14. [xxi] Notes about this conflict are found on the back of a photograph of the murals in the MCNY collection (x2012.54.27). Supporters of the Ludlow Amendment believed that those called upon to fight should have a vote in the country’s entry into war. Marling discusses the political and social content of murals throughout Wall-to-Wall America. The controversy over Diego Rivera’s murals for Rockefeller Center also fits within this discussion. The Mexican painter was commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller to paint a mural for Rockefeller Center, which he began in 1933. When Rivera refused to remove the image of the Russian revolutionary Vladamir Lenin from the mural, Rockefeller had the mural destroyed. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. remembers the isolationist-interventionist debate of 1940 to 1941 as the most savage in his lifetime. Alexander Star, “His Liberal Imagination,” New York Times Sunday Book Review (November 26, 2000), 7.

ID:
X2012.54.129
[Queen Mary and another boat.]
ca. 1937
gelatin silver print
H: 4 3/4 in, W: 3 1/4 in
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 12

WPA or government murals, in general, were not only a means to employ artists during the Depression but also to spur or rekindle belief in an American way of life that was faltering. At a time when one quarter of Americans were unemployed or essentially unproductive, many of these murals extolled American know-how, steadfastness, and historic courage in the face of adversity. Marsh’s murals, depicting figures at work in relation to such huge machinery as ocean liners that could accommodate cargo as enormous as automobiles, demonstrated the kind of magisterial world desired by WPA head Holger Cahill as visible symbols of inspiration. Cahill strongly championed John Dewey’s philosophy of “art as experience.” In 1934, Dewey wrote: “Art is the extension of the power of rites and ceremonies to unite men, through a shared celebration, to all incidents and scenes of life . . . Art also renders men aware of their union with one another in origin and destiny.” [xxii] WPA murals were intended to strengthen the collective in American life, not to salute the solitary genius. While artists like Marsh sought to recover the Renaissance and Baroque through media and form (in addition to fresco secco, Marsh used the Old Master egg tempera medium for his paintings of the thirties), American art critics philosophically reconceived of the Renaissance as a period of collectivism rather than individualism. [xxiii] WPA murals, concludes Karal Ann Marling, are less about painting than they are “a compact with the community and with popular feeling.” [xxiv] The “initial sense of crisis and personal isolation” felt so strongly when the Depression commenced, writes critic Morris Dickstein, evolved culturally during the 1930s into “a dream of community, a vision of interdependence, just as it did in the political world.” [xxv] Especially relevant here, Dickstein uses the metaphor that everyone realized they were “in the same boat.” In the case of Marsh’s Custom House murals—and luxury travel, perhaps—they were not in the same boat but they (a predominantly white they) were all part of the same harbor. .................................................................. [vvii] Francis V. O’Connor, ed., Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975), 17. [xxiii] “America today is developing a School of Painting which promises to be the most important movement in the world of art since the days of the Italian Renaissance,” Peyton Boswell, Jr., Modern American Painting (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1940). In 1931 the entire issue of the periodical Creative Arts was devoted to the American Renaissance. Matthew Baigell, The American Scene: American Painting of the 1930’s (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), 38. See Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art,” particularly chapter three. [xxiv] Marling quoted in Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2009), 457. [xxv] Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark, 523.

ID:
76.24.29
Passing Skyline.
1937
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1976.
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 13

As feminist scholarship has argued, the position of women in that “harbor,” was highly, in WPA murals women still served to buttress a mythic American or agrarian past within which artists retrogressively circumscribed their roles as wives and mothers. [xxvi] In the case of the Custom House murals, women were largely absent at first—especially odd for an artist whose work was characterized by the presence of what some call “bawdy” and “vulgar” lower-class women.[xxvii] It was only later in the evolution of the murals that Marsh added the scene of the female celebrity photographed and interviewed on the deck of the Queen Mary. Art historian Kathleen Spies identifies the females in this panel as notably different from Marsh’s usual women. The slim women here are fashionable, more “cleaned up,” more fit for the luxury of the Normandie than the world of burlesque. Spies uses this panel to buttress her argument that for Marsh, the lower-class female figure personifies the “abject” or “grotesque” of the city. [xxviii] In this scene of upper-class travel, Marsh necessarily includes a different type woman, demonstrating for Spies a class-consciousness written onto different female body types. Spies also describes the setting of the entire panel as more classically articulated and less restless than Marsh’s usual crowded scenes. Photographs and sketches related to this panel confirm her perceptions. [xxix] A small photo taken by Marsh in the MCNY collection shows the deck as a crisply modern and streamlined space devoid of people. Marsh then penned in the celebrity and journalists over a photograph of a sketch of the deck likely based on the photo. Jan Ramirez suggested that Marsh decided to include this scene, along with the panel of unloading something as large and luxurious as a very contemporary car, to glamorize the murals by bringing in movies, celebrity, and consumerism to make the murals more modern, lively, and timely [xxx] [Marsh regularly attended the movies even while at work on the Custom House murals. See essay on Marsh and the movies.] However, it is noteworthy that in the original pen sketch in which Marsh drew the celebrity and newsmen onto the deck, the artist renders her without clothing, the few lines of her body evoking a much more sexualized posture than once she is “dressed” for the mural, a posture more in keeping with Marsh’s usual woman. Other sketches demonstrate how the artist played with the relationship between the group of photographers and the woman commanding their attention, moving the group alternately nearer to or farther from her. While Marsh may have dressed her differently, therefore, the overall strategy of the woman as an object to be “looked at” or consumed affirms the artist’s consistent use of women as cynosure whether in the burlesque, at the beach, or, in this case, aboard a luxury liner. .................................................................. [xxvi] Barbara Melosh, Engendering American Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 2–3. [xxvii] In the last twenty years, research has focused on Marsh’s use of these lower-class women as exemplifying New York. See Spies, “Burlesque Queens and Circus Divas” and Michele L. Miller, ““The Charms of Exposed Flesh”: Reginald Marsh and the Burlesque Theater,” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1997). This social approach is also paramount in Ellen Wiley Todd, The “New Woman” Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press: 1993). [xxviii] See Spies “Burlesque Queens and Circus Divas” and Miller, ““The Charms of Exposed Flesh.”” [xxix] Spies, “Burlesque Queens and Circus Divas,” 60. [xxx] Ramirez, “The Making of a Mural,” 10.

ID:
90.36.1.1011
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Deck of ship.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES