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.