Reginald Marsh’s New York

Editorial Staff Art

Just when twenty-first-century New York has all but erased its louche past-dives, burlesque halls, raffish markets, and public spectacles-with well-mannered parks, high-rise condominiums, and corporately branded entertainment venues, the New-York Historical Society has resurrected it in Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and Thirties New York. It’s nice to have the old New York back.

Marsh was born far above the city’s lower depths but he stood before its crowds in a kind of stunned fascination. They inspired him to compose pictures with the verve and complexity of the old masters he revered. He once remarked that he had copied every great painting in Europe and it shows in his structure and technique, but it was joining that technique to his passion for ruckus Manhattan that made Marsh great.

His breakthrough came during the Depression with his scenes of people on the move but going nowhere-people on merry-go-rounds, in kick lines, on roller coasters, and performing aerial stunts. He rendered them without judgment or sentimentality in paintings, prints, watercolors, drawings, and photographs. His output for an artist who died at fifty-six is astonishing-one more measure of his tribute to the city that inspired him and whose élan he memorialized. 

Hudson Bay Fur Company by Reginald Marsh (1898-1954), 1932. Egg tempera on muslin mounted on particle board. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. © 2013 Estate of Reginald Marsh/Art Students League/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.