As a student at Yale, Reginald Marsh drew cartoons for the Yale Record, a humor magazine. When he finished school and moved to New York, he continued to work as an illustrator, sketching portraits of burlesque and vaudeville performers for a regular feature in the Daily News. Thus did Marsh—who took up painting after studying in 1921 under John Sloan at the Art Students League—enter the milieu that is the subject of his best-known work: the smoky, louche, and sometimes lurid side of Gotham, from the crowded sidewalks of the Theater District and the tattoo parlors and barber shops of the Bowery, to the garishly illuminated amusement parks of Coney Island at night.
Yet Marsh was not completely fixated on the steamier, seamier side of urban life, as The Lure of Cuba: Reginald Marsh’s Tropical Watercolors, 1924–1930, a new exhibition at the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs demonstrates. In the 1920s, Marsh traveled several times to Florida and the Caribbean and there he revealed a different, sunnier aspect of his artistic interests. “The exhibition offers a new look at Reginald Marsh by focusing on a series of watercolors he created on his little known, but influential, travels to Florida, Havana, Cuba, and Puerto Rico,” says the exhibition’s curator, Jillian Russo. “He was drawn to the tropics just as the great American watercolorists Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent were. In his tropical paintings, Marsh turns away from his typical urban subjects, focusing on foliage and architecture rather than the social environment. In this sense, his travels freed him from familiar subjects, allowing him to experiment with the watercolor medium and his approach to painting.”
The Benton—which is named for a longtime publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, who served for a short term as a US senator for Connecticut—has a surprisingly rich trove of Reginald Marsh’s art. The reason: Marsh and Benton were at Yale together, both were colleagues on the Yale Record staff, and remained lifelong friends. Boola-Boola.
The Lure of Cuba: Reginald Marsh’s Tropical Watercolors, 1924–1930 • William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs • to October 13 • benton.uconn.edu