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Reginald Marsh's Studies of 1930's Street Life

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Reginald Marsh was a prominent realist in the 1930's who loved to study the street life and underground of depression era New York. Marsh's work is impressively detailed, capturing everything from the street goers hustling around to the elaborate architecture of the city. He was heavily influenced by Renaissance and Baroque painting which can be recognized in the framing, poses, and attention detail in both characters and architecture. Yet, even though a classical influence is clear, his work is inherently American, capturing the true and sometimes unfavorable life of the time. The two paintings that come to mind, for me, when thinking of Marsh's work studying the undergrounds of New York are The Bowery, 1930, and Tattoo and Haircut, 1932.

The Bowery, Reginald Marsh, 1930

Working chronologically, The Bowery is certainly the more refined of the two works. Although the scene is crowded and the background appears to contain a lot of motion, the foreground is strangely still. There's a silence to the work, it almost feels as if all of the commotion has blended together and frozen the scene for a moment. A brief pause in a time of constant commotion on the streets. The scene is entirely lit by tiny spills of light from the strip of shops that everyone is moving along which is cause for the paintings dim color scheme. This brownish color washes over almost the entire painting, allowing just about everyone to blend together except for the two primary characters of this work. Catching just enough light from the foremost shop on the strip, these two characters are barely able to retain prominence. Slightly to the right of the center is the most well dressed, seemingly put together character of the work. Although his suit is a simple gray, its clean and organized fashion sets it apart from all other noticeable clothing in the scene. Just to the left of him, and pretty much dead center of the painting, is a character who's just about the opposite of the well dressed man. His long, scraggly white beard hangs over tatters of clothes as he glances into one of the shops. Perhaps these two characters symbolize the two extremes of the depression. On one hand the well dressed man has an air of charisma as he directs a character along the underground, keeping himself afloat with a facade of excellence, and on the other the tired old man pauses, letting out a heavy exhale that spells out the hardships of 1930's life. The painting spells out the frantic, constantly moving scene of New York and while it blends most characters together, it allows two characters that are essentially caricatures of the extremes of 1930's life to stand out.

Tattoo and Haircut, Reginald Marsh, 1932

Two years later Marsh painted Tattoo and Haircut, which captures another popular skid row of the time but this one feels much more satirical. There are far fewer people in the painting so most of the characters are able to stand out with some individual elements, but they're far looser in painting style. Where The Bowery is subtle in message, this painting is a little more deliberate in its design as the people are basically caricatures of who would be hanging around this dark area under the bridge. Street hooligans loitering, hobbling beggars, and a chic, lone woman wandering in the background much more clearly illustrate the "clientele" of the tattoo and haircut parlor. it's interesting how the message hasn't necessarily changed but the way its portrayed has changed so much in just 2 years. The Bowery is so much more subtle and refined, but Tattoo and Haircut is looser, the motion feels much more real, the hustle and bustle is there and the gentle satire of the figures makes the painting a little more fun than its predecessor. Tattoo and Haircut is a much more approachable painting, it's still got a dark undertone as all of depression era life did, but it doesn't come with such a great gloom.

Both of these paintings are beautiful representations of real life and this method of work has largely been lost post-realism in a contemporary world of abstraction. But, as Marsh shows in his various works, there's a lot that can be displayed or altered when painting from life that can keep the painting exciting. American painting might be due for a revival in its roots of lively depictions of real life, especially in a modern era where there's no shortage of exciting things going on. Perhaps painters like Marsh can be used to inspire an American Renaissance like that which inspired works like these.

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