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 1936.1 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.”2
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.3 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.4
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.5
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.