Reginald Marsh’s Custom House Murals
There is no need to imagine how Reginald Marsh, described as the “unofficial Artist Laureate of New York” by Grace Mayer of the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) over fifty years ago, felt when commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project (T.R.A.P.) to paint murals in the US Custom House in 1936. [i] The panels had remained unfinished for nearly thirty years in an immensely impressive federal building occupying its own block at the base of Manhattan—a building with a sculptural and architectural program that already linked the United States Customs Service to maritime exploration of the past and four known continents of the world! For an artist who so firmly believed in representational art, who loved the New York harbor, and reveled in being an “American” painter, the opportunity to create these murals represented the chance quite literally to elevate his view of the city. Here was a chance, said Marsh, “to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power.” [ii]
While much scholarship concentrates on Marsh’s rendering of crowds of people restlessly driven to enjoy themselves in the midst of the economic turbulence of the Depression, railroads and ships equally entranced the artist. In fact, Marsh first began to paint after seeing a Charles Burchfield painting of a locomotive. [iii] Large, bold, and modern, ships and trains were icons of strength and masculinity, the other side, perhaps, to the “carnivalesque” women and/or raucous spectacles he found on the streets and beaches of New York City. Marsh’s locomotive, commented one early reviewer, was more lyrically romantic than his crowded paintings. [iv]
Just as Marsh sketched the urban populace at Coney Island Beach, on Fourteenth Street, on the Bowery, outside movies, and in the burlesque theaters, he made innumerable drawings in charcoal, pen and ink, and watercolor of the Manhattan waterfront whether viewing it from Hoboken, the Brooklyn Bridge, or the Battery. Nautical themes were a love of the artist since his boyhood summers spent in Sakonnet Point, Rhode Island. He shared an affinity for water with his father, who built homes on an island in Maine and in Ormond Beach, Florida. Not only did Marsh sketch, draw, and paint, but he also photographed these subjects, recording details later utilized in his paintings. (See related essay on Marsh’s photographs in the collection of the MCNY.) This method of working from sketches, drawings, watercolors, and photographs served him especially well in his approach to the Custom House murals at a time when the government and public advocated representational veracity in mural work. [v]
This essay revisits Marsh’s Custom House murals based upon a trove of material related to them in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The collection is testimony to Marsh’s astonishingly thorough work process. It also documents how the artist evolved the mural series, using his penchant for detail to validate a larger view of the city and nation consonant with the ideological nature of mural art during the Depression. In addition, it hints at underlying themes never entirely absent from his work—his obsessive attachment, for example, to women as central to his oeuvre.
[i] Marsh wrote to Olin Dows, the head of T.R.A.P., “Here is a chance to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power, neither like the story tellling or propagandist painting which everybody does. I have in the past painted dozens of watercolors around N.Y. harbor, and would like to get at it with some of this knowledge.” See Lloyd Goodrich, Reginald Marsh (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1972), 140.
[ii] See Grace Mayer correspondence related to Reginald Marsh in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
[iii] Barbara Haskell, “Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and the Exuberant Chaos of Thirties New York,” in Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York, Barbara Haskell, ed. (New York: New York Historical Society in association D Giles Limited, London, forthcoming).
[iv] For a discussion of the carnivalesque in Marsh’s work, see Jackson Lears, “Keeping the Carnival in Town: Reginald Marsh and the Culture of the 1930s,” in Haskell, Swing Time. The reviewer of a Marsh exhibition in 1932 (possibly from Time magazine) wrote: “Human beings may be vulgar, pretentious, obvious but a locomotive is always elegant, chic and glamorous.” In Scrapbook [#1], Clippings, circa 1922–1939, Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, p. 26, accessed May 1, 2012, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/container/viewer/Scrapbook-1-Clippings--276707.
[v] According to Karal Ann Marling, the American public preferred historical murals during the 1930s. On the subject of murals during the Depression, see Karal Ann Marling, Wall-to-Wall America: a Cultural History of Post-Office Murals in the Great Depression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982). Marsh’s interest in the Renaissance and Old Master traditions fueled his enthusiasm for mural work. He was able to combine his attraction to everyday life with the forms and compositions of Old Masters. See Marilyn Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art,” (PhD diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1986) and Marilyn Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs (New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Dover Publications, Inc., 1983).