Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
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.