Ajax loader
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 5

In his pursuit of accuracy in all details of the waterfront, Marsh also collected postcards and photographs of the piers, the waterways around the city, the skyline from different vantage points, and the ocean liners. Some have paint marks on them, indicating their use in the actual preparation of the murals. He had several of the Queen Mary and the Normandie pulling into the harbor and seen against the skyline, many of which are in the MCNY collection. The sheer numbers of sketches in charcoal, pencil, or watercolor, and the varied sizes of them all—small ones from sketchbooks used during outings and larger watercolors worked up in the studio—reveal the obsessive character of the artist’s work method, a hard-work ethic which was to mark him as a yeoman “American” and not a “marginal” artist. [xi] Not only did Marsh do a vast amount of preparatory work from life, he also photographed his nautical subjects from different points of view, getting angles ranging from the dark passageways between the liner’s hulls and the dock to more expansive views of boats and crews seen from decks above, or against the skyline. He further traced details such as the sides of boats from photographs or postcards marking one, for example, “traced from Goff ‘Lafayette’ 209L.’” An ink drawing (illus 76.24.108) on tracing paper, denoted as “French liner Ralph Steiner,” has the accompanying notes: “6 rivets laterally—This row of rivets show very strong and outstanding.” Photography was the fastest way for Marsh to gather the raw data or “reality” of what he saw happening at the ports and on the ships. Marsh’s photographs in the MCNY collection specifically record the paraphernalia of rigging and masts, the newsreel cameras and microphones used by reporters covering transatlantic voyages, the Ambrose lightship moving through the water, couples striding down decks, and many other elements found in the final version of the murals. One of his assistants, Mary Fife, wrote: I would get up at three in the morning on a cold spring day and take the Broadway bus down to the Battery, where Reg would be waiting in the dark to board the tugboat which was going out to meet an incoming liner. In those days the harbor was very busy and we were sent down to Battery Park to make detailed sketches of rigging, tugboats, the Statue of Liberty, and the skyline from Governor’s Island. We often accompanied Reg on trips to meet the “Queen Mary” or the “Normandie.” Reg wanted details of lifeboats, davits, hawsers, ventilators, stacks, masts and rigging, sirens, bells, deck-chairs—everything.” [xii] .................................................................. [xi] Marsh defined himself as a working artist. Kathleen Spies, “Burlesque Queens and Circus Divas: Images of the Female Grotesque in the Art of Reginald Marsh and Walt Kuhn, 1915–1945,” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 1999), 208. See also Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art.” [xii] Lisa Leavitt, “Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals: Reframed and Reseen,” American Art Review 7, no. 5 (October–November 1995): 122–27. http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/6aa/6aa15a.htm. Also cited by Jan Ramirez in exhibition text regarding Marsh’s Custom House murals (see note 14).

ID:
X2012.54.23
[Queen Mary.]
ca. 1937
gelatin silver print
H: 8 in, W: 10 in
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
Page 6

Marsh’s daily diaries for the years 1936 and 1937 document the exact timeline of his process, indicating, for example, on November 20, 1936: “5:30 AM—1st time down harbor with Cutter,” and on November 21, “down harbor with Normandie.” He “breakfasted” on the Normandie on October 14. On September 20, 1937, he wrote that he had “come up on Queen Mary” and on September 27, “spend day at sea with pilots.” These diary entries are only a few among many. [xiii] After Marsh assembled his material and made his final sketches, he used a balopticon, a projector likely manufactured by Bausch and Lomb, to project his sketches through lantern slides onto the prepared panels. He then sketched over the projection, working from one of two fifty-foot scaffolds built to bring him up to the ceiling. (One cannot help thinking of Michelangelo and the Sistine Ceiling here!) He also created grids on his sketches to effect the transformation in scale to the larger panels. His diaries indicate which day he started each panel, when he used the balopticon, when he painted, and when he re-painted. That the process was unbearably tiring is evident in a notation on October 2, 1937 when, very much in the midst of painting the murals, specifically the Pilot panel; he wrote in his diary “collapse in aft.” Alongside this work method, so steeped in observation, needs to be placed Marsh’s advice to his art students to “Stare at Michelangelo casts. Go out into the street, stare at the people. Go into the subway. Stare at the people, Stare, stare, keep on staring. Go into your studio; stare at your pictures, yourself, everything.” As intensely as Marsh wanted to enter the literal world he was painting on the waterfront—and emphatically did so—he also wanted to place those images within the context of historical painting, which is why he decided to do the murals in fresco secco technique, the medium used during the Renaissance. For this, he consulted with Olle Nordmark, an artist schooled in the use of the medium who actively worked on the murals with him and who had helped him with the post office murals. Archived letters and records, calculations on old envelopes, and postcards all still in Marsh’s possession at the time of his death in 1954, describe the kinds of materials, such as bags of sand and cement necessary to prepare the ceiling for fresco, and the costs to be reimbursed by the government. The ceiling itself, however, needed to be entirely scraped and re-plastered because it sprung a leak likely due to the tiles originally used to construct the dome. It was an enormous feat successfully completed by Marsh with Nordmark and hired helpers. As the government threatened cancellation of the project for lack of funds, Marsh agreed to undertake the murals paid at the rate of a government clerk—approximately ninety cents an hour, less than what his workers earned, and proof of just how much he wanted to do them. .................................................................. [xiii] Marsh’s “Little Red Book” diaries for 1936, 1937, and 1938, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, pp. 18–61, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/-The-Little-Red-Book-Engagement-Diaries--276573.

ID:
90.36.1.646
Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
[Newsreel photographers on ship.]
ca. 1938
gelatin silver print
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Felicia Meyer Marsh, 1990.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES
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