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Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Signed and Dated View of the Manhattan Skyline by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)
New York Skyline, 1937
Paper size: 19 x 13 inches
Framed: 32 x 25 1/2 inches
Watercolor on paper
Signed lower right: Reginald Marsh/ Aug 1 1937

Born into a family of American artists, Marsh spent his first days in Paris before returning to the states in 1900. His family settled in the artistic enclave in Nutley, New Jersey.  Reginald studied at Yale University where he became a cartoonist for the Yale Record.  After his graduation in 1920 he made his way to New York City, assuming a career as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and magazines.  In 1922 he became a staff artist for the Daily News and was primarily employed to complete drawings of city life, including vaudeville and burlesque shows.  Later, in 1925, Marsh became one of the original cartoonists for The New Yorker. 

Between 1927 and 1928, Marsh attended classes at the Art Students League of New York where he came into contact with artists Kenneth Hayes Miller, John Sloan and George Luks, all of whose images of contemporary urban life had a profound influence on him.  Marsh established a studio on 14th Street and, inspired by the everyday activities and leisure pursuits of the New York's lower- and middle-income classes, quickly became one of the major players of urban realist artists of the 1930s.  A keen observer of commonplace, everyday activities, Marsh was unrivaled at capturing the teeming environment of New York City and its environs on paper. 

Marsh is most fondly remembered for his bawdy scenes of Coney Island but it is in works such as New York Skyline that his affinity for the growing urbanism of America is truly shown.  As noted by Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Graduate School of CUNY University William H. Gerdts, "as early as 1927, Marsh undertook to add a very different theme to his repertoire - the shoreline of Manhattan Island, always devoid of figures." The artist was known to have painted this same subject in several variations; however, they each appear to be recorded by the artist as he stood in Brooklyn or Queens looking across the East River toward the Battery.

In New York Skyline, there is a gestural, yet exact quality to all of the components in the picture: the water in the foreground, various buildings in the mid-ground and the sky up above.  We can identify two iconic buildings on the New York cityscape: the Chrysler Building is the tall structure at the right, and the Empire State Building is the tallest structure near the center. Marsh clearly took some artistic liberties in this painting, omitting other key structures that he would have surely seen. The viewer can speculate that this painting is Marsh's way of celebrating the city, not providing the viewer with extreme, factual accuracy.

While Marsh may have made a name for himself by portraying vagabonds and voluptuous ladies, he is perhaps also equally well known for his depictions of tugboats. In 1937, the same year that this piece was executed, he painted one of two WPA murals for the New York Customs House where tugboats, according to Professor Gerdts, "loom large."  Gerdts makes the analogy that at this point in his career, tug boats were Marsh's new equivalent to the common folk he was so familiar with portraying. This new protagonist frequently made an appearance in his marine works. He did not, however, take an interest in painting the elite vessels of wealthy New Yorkers that floated its waters. "Just as he shunned the upper classes, so he generally omitted luxury liners" (Gerdts). 

New York Skyline is a prime example of Marsh's ability to transform an everyday subject matter into high art. It is a truly unique opportunity for any collector to acquire an extremely well rendered picture, featuring such a prominent American landscape.   

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