The Best Show is the People Themselves : Reginald Marsh’s New York
American, b. France 1898-1954
etching on wove paper
5 1/8 x 4 1/8 inches
Syracuse University Art Collection, 1964.066
© The Art Students League of New York/ Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
Reginald Marsh is best known for creating vibrant and rowdy scenes of New York City life during the Great Depression. When he produced this self-portrait in 1928, Marsh had only been in New York five years. He moved to the urban center to become a staff artist for Vanity Fair and the New York Daily News. As an illustrator for the popular press, Marsh was trained to capture the energy, chaos, and spectacular qualities of the fast-paced city. He adapted these skills to the etchings and engravings he produced in the 1930s and 1940s, the focus of this exhibition. Like other artists affiliated with the “Fourteenth Street School” (a group of urban realists who worked near Fourteenth Street and Union Square), Marsh was drawn to the city’s modernity, working-class leisure, and popular entertainments. While he frequently represented mass transit, the theater district, street spectacles, and beaches, perhaps his most memorable and well-known images capture the city’s underbelly: the seedy Bowery, houses of prostitution, and burlesque shows.
Marsh was an unlikely chronicler of the working-class and popular spectacles. He was born to well-to-do American parents in Paris, attended Yale University, and was a great lover of Renaissance art. It was not uncommon, however, for well-educated men of privilege to seek out popular entertainments, such as burlesque shows, which were often geared toward such audiences. Marsh’s attitude toward such spectacles and the working class people featured in them is difficult to gauge. In some works he seems to treat his lower-class subjects, particularly men, with humanity in the vein of his teacher John Sloan. In others images, such as many of those that feature women, his subjects can be dehumanized and objectified as they make their bodies available for consumption.
Through research and careful analysis, the students who participated in this exhibition attempted to grapple with the ambiguities present in Marsh’s representations of New York urban life. The exhibition is the product of Art History Senior Seminar (HOA 498), a required class for art history majors that is intended to hone their skills in scholarly research and writing. Under the direction of Assistant Professor Sascha Scott and in consultation with David Prince, Associate Director and Curator of Collections of the SUArt Galleries the students were each assigned to research a work on paper by Marsh from the SUArt Galleries’ permanent collection. Students were charged with offering an interpretation of their assigned work by attending to its subject matter, materials, and style and by conducting thorough research. Their research considered the key secondary scholarship on the artist. Students also explored archival material from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, which houses Reginald Marsh’s personal papers, and from Syracuse University’s Special Collections and Research Center.
In their examination of Marsh’s works on paper, many students offer new and surprising readings of the artist’s work, challenging scholarship that sees Marsh as a neutral spectator of life or as adopting an unambiguously objectifying gaze. Attending to Marsh’s personal papers led students to explore how his interest in the Renaissance and photography shaped his vision, as well as to ponder how the artist’s work might register the complexities of his personal life. Through nuanced historical research, students found that his representations of working class women convey period anxieties about prostitution, changing practices of courtship, and shifting gender roles; that his works yield insights into the businesses of spectacle and prostitution; and that his images of male audiences display a sense of camaraderie through leisure at a time when economic crises had left many men unable to work. Marsh once stated, “The best show is the people themselves.” While he saw himself as an unbiased observer, the students’ work show us that his vision of New York urban life was coded by the hopes, desires, and fears of both the artist and dominant society at large.
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