In addition, a large cartoon by the artist in the MCNY collection tells us that certain underlying ideas are never too far from the surface, literally, in Marsh’s work. In the cartoon, two seamen look at each other, one from a liner, and the other from a smaller boat adjoining it. Neither sees the fantastic sight of a buxom mermaid in the water right by them. This is a common joke made by the artist in works set on the Bowery that poke fun at a man’s inability to see a curvaceous woman passing by—lack of sight being an especially meaningful lapse (impotence?) for an artist. [xxxi] In a Bowery rendition of this construct, a sign over an optician’s window reads Eyes Examined. The mermaid cartoon likely relates to a kind of vaudevillian or burlesque humor, and the formulation of the celebrity panel itself asserts a theatrical attitude. Marsh certainly did see these interview scenes the many times he visited the harbor and its ships; photographs document and corroborate how important the artist’s daily visits to the port were in formulating and altering the mural sequence. But the evolution of the celebrity panel and the cartoon make clear that in addition to their social reality these murals also evidence aspects of Marsh’s personal iconography.
The murals are further complicated psychically in their relationship to works by Marsh’s father, who was alive when Marsh was working at the Custom House. In 1913, Fred Dana Marsh designed a set of tiled murals for the Rathskeller Restaurant in the Hotel McAlpin in Herald Square, New York City and now located in the Broadway/Nassau Street subway station in Manhattan. The murals were views of New York harbor at different historical moments, and in one of them an ocean liner enters the harbor. The popular murals earned the Rathskeller the nickname “The Marine Grill.” [xxxii] The elder Marsh worked on murals at the 1893 Chicago Columbian exhibition, and, upon his arrival back in the United States, was enamored of contemporary skyscraper construction just when the skyline became a subject for painting. In 1906, International Studio Magazine labeled Fred Dana Marsh the “painter of later-day industry.” [xxxiii] A figure at the bottom left of Unloading Cargo in the Custom House bears close relationship to F. D. Marsh’s muscular builders and underscores the more illustrational style Marsh used in the rest of the Custom House murals. This worker specifically recalls a kind of Renaissance form and in Marsh’s cycle appears to “support” the epic effort and energy necessary to the monumental work of the harbor. In this figure, Marsh employs Old Master form to make everyday labor more palpable and important, even heroic; this was always his ostensible reason always for studying Renaissance art. However, this interest may also relate him to his father, who decorated his studio with works by Titian and Tintoretto. In any case, the connections between these sets of murals document Lloyd Goodrich’s comment that Marsh was well suited, if not “born,” to paint the Custom House murals. Both Marsh and his father appreciated the present while deeply attached to the art of the past. [xxxiv]
[xxxi] Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of His Art,” chapter four and Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York. See also Todd, The “New Woman” Revised, 181.
[xxxii] Fred Dana Marsh’s papers are at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. There is also a set of murals of moments in harbor history in another section of the Custom House building that date from its original construction. Ellen Wiley Todd has written about the “strained and difficult” relationship between Marsh and his father based on interviews with the painter Edward Laning, a painter friend of Marsh. Todd, The “New Woman” Revised, 55. James Walter Ellis also wrote that Marsh’s painting In Fourteenth Street was a direct affront to the elevated themes of his father. (PhD diss., Case Western Reserve University, 2003), 167.
[xxxiii] Arthur Hoeber, “Frederick Dana Marsh, Painter of Our Later-Day Industry,” The International Studio 28 (1906), lxvii. Later articles on F. D. Marsh’s mural decoration also appeared in The International Studio 83 (January 1926) and in The Studio 93 (1927). (According to Lloyd Goodrich, the correct name for Marsh’s father was Fred and not Frederick or Fredric.) The New York skyline itself only became a subject for painting at the end of the nineteenth century, just as Fred Dana Marsh and family returned to New York from Paris in 1900. The first use of the term skyline was in the New York Journal, May 3, 1896. Earlier, on August 11, 1894, Harper’s Weekly published a pair of panoramic views called “The Age of Skyscrapers—Tall Buildings in the Business District of New York City.” See John A. Kouwenhoven, The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York: An Essay in Graphic History in Honor of the Tricentennial of New York City and the Bicentennial of Columbia University (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953), 394.
[xxxiv] “This was a modern saga, both real and epic; clear and logical in its unfolding, and completely appropriate for the building. No artist was more qualified to paint it, by his intimate experience of the harbor and its shipping, and his nautical knowledge from boyhood on.” Goodrich, Reginald Marsh, 140.
Another interesting commentary on the murals in light of Marsh’s relationship with his father is that of Lisa Leavitt who focuses on aspects of Native American imagery used in a pejorative manner in the murals. In French, calumet means peace pipe but on the side of the Calcumet ship, Marsh added tomahawks, a reference completely at odds with the name of the boat but keeping with a white American view of Native American culture as primitive and violent. Fred Dana Marsh had an interest in Native American art. Leavitt, “Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals.”