James W. Ellis is Research Assistant Professor in the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he teaches art history and art theory courses. His research interests include American Social and Urban Realism, European Modernism and the contemporary Chinese art market and scene. Email:
Reginald Marsh was one of the preeminent painters and printmakers realistically depicting life in New York City from the early 1920s through the 1950s. However, unlike other realist artists of the era, such as Edward Hopper or George Bellows, Marsh imagined New York as a shamelessly writhing, tawdry grandstander, a half-dressed exhibitionist on permanent display, and he relished flashes of flesh he found swarming on every corner. This essay examines the paradox that was Reginald Marsh, a slumming elite, an upper-crust hedonist lurking with a sketchpad in the darkened strip joint and naughtily ogling sunbathers as he bobbed in the ocean surf. For Reginald Marsh, nothing surpassed the inspiration of masses of bodies on public beaches or solitary stripteases on the stages of burlesque halls. Many personal and professional motivations led to his obsession with sensuality in the city, including rebelling against his conservative, underachieving father, an artistic education encouraging urban sexuality as a proper theme, and his voyeuristic obsession with gaudy public entertainments. However, the seeds of Marsh’s pleasure-based iconography were planted in his privileged childhood.
A PATH TO THE REAL ‘VULGAR’ LIFE
Marsh was born in 1898 in Paris’ bohemian Left Bank, in an apartment over Montparnasse’s modish Café du Dôme. He was the second son of Fred Dana Marsh and Alice Randall Marsh, American painters who met at the Art Institute in Chicago. Fred Marsh came from money. His family made a fortune in the meatpacking industry in Chicago, ‘hog butcher to the world’, and his parents hoped in vain that Fred would pursue a business career. Defying his parent’s more practical preferences, Fred Marsh followed his natural artistic inclinations. Although in certain ways a free-spirit, Fred Marsh’s approach to art was rather conventional. He emulated the fashionable portrait styles of John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and did so very well. Fred Marsh moved his family to Paris after the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts accepted two of his works in 1895, and he exhibited several Sargentesque portraits in salons between 1896 and 1899. Indeed, he seemed destined for greatness. It would have been easy to imagine Fred Marsh having a long and successful career churning out orthodox society portraits for a wealthy clientele. Such was not to be.
Left Bank life was decadent and premature success made Fred Marsh complacent; his youthful fire and creative spirit dampened. After his salon submissions were rejected in 1901 and 1902, the family left Paris to return to America and a more sedate life in Nutley, New Jersey, a convenient, upscale suburb of Manhattan, harboring an active colony of artists and intellectuals. Fred Marsh continued to exhibit periodically at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Institute in Chicago, but his creativity had peaked. Election to the National Academy of Design as a full Academician in 1906 ‒ at the age of thirty-four ‒ was both his professional zenith and the beginning of his descent. Thereafter, Fred Dana Marsh’s most prominent work consisted of idiosyncratic decorative commissions for clubs and private homes, including a 1910 mural for Manhattan’s Engineers Club, showing construction workers building a new skyscraper. His murals were inventive, but outside the central currents of American visual culture. By the time he was forty-five, Fred Marsh completely abandoned easel painting, leaving even admirers to conclude he “wasted his opportunities” (Goodrich, “Goodrich Reminisces” 3). Reginald Marsh spent his artistic career trying to avoid his father’s failed example.
Much could be learned visiting Reginald at his childhood home in Nutley, New Jersey. One would discover an awkward, self-conscious boy, trying desperately to act perfectly ‘normal’, pretending to be just like his brothers, interested only in sports and fighting (Goodrich, “Painter of New York” 19-20). Although privileged with a rich child’s upbringing, Reginald’s appearance was that of a rambunctious Mark Twain character, a short stocky boy, with broad shoulders, a shock of red hair, and freckles (Ibid.). In his heart, he dreamed of being an artist. Precocious yet inhibited, curious yet extremely shy, Reginald busily filled his diaries and schoolbooks with well-executed drawings, contemplating his future and the world beyond “gentle and sheltered” Nutley (Laning, “Eyes of Marsh” 23). Standing at the window of the big house looking wistfully down across the lawn sloping toward a distant railroad rolling into New York (Laning, East Side 80), Reginald knew spring had arrived when a makeshift ‘hobo jungle’ appeared at the foot of the hill (Laning, “Eyes of Marsh” 23). Watching the hoboes stretched out in the sun near the tracks, he daydreamed about what sort of men they were and the types of lives they lived (Laning, East Side 23, 89).
Marsh was a sickly boy, afflicted with soft bones. When he was a toddler and the family still lived in France, his parents buried him up to his neck on the beaches of Brittany to facilitate growth (Blossom 257). Marsh later explained to the regionalist painter John Steuart Curry, “You see, as a child I had rickets, and my frantic parents used to trundle me off to the beach and bury me in the warm sand, being convinced it would cure my ailment. But imagine me, buried there, immobilized for hours on end, my only view of humanity being right up their legs!” (Hall 260-1). Decades later, Marsh would bob in the Atlantic Ocean off Coney Island surveying the bounty of bodies and then use the view from ‘down under’ in many of his enthusiastic sunbather portrayals. If they had been aware of their son’s often-vulgar way of looking at the world, Fred and Alice Marsh may have found a more conventional way to treat his rickets. As Reginald grew, it became apparent he was a gifted draftsman, a ‘chip off the old block’. At the tender age of three, he began imitating his father, copying Fred Marsh’s paintings of skyscrapers, construction workers and trains. Reginald also watched his father sketch live female nude models, who occasionally came to the Nutley home to pose in Fred’s large studio (Pierce 542). We may never know exactly why, but Fred Marsh hoped his son would pursue a more practical profession than he had and he never sent his son to art classes. However, despite the lack of encouragement, at sixteen Reginald told his parents he intended to be an artist. His father, perhaps remembering his own failures, strongly opposed the idea. Nevertheless, Reginald was determined and he went away to Yale University to study studio art.
Attending Yale University must have been somewhat agonizing for Marsh. A chain-smoking, painfully introverted, loner, he slinked about campus in an intentionally inconspicuous, almost invisible, way, with sketchpad and pen in hand. He found welcomed social release as comic contributor to the school paper, the Yale Record, a position he exploited as a free ticket to the university’s youthful extracurricular social subculture of parties and alcohol. Sex and pleasure became personal and artistic obsessions and remained so for life. He learned society would not punish an artist for depicting debauchery and self-indulgence, and, as an added bonus, he gratified his own desires through artfully decadent representations.
Marsh was encouraged by his most-influential teachers, Kenneth Hayes Miller and John Sloan, to focus his art on the sexualized human body. While still enrolled at Yale, in 1919, Marsh took the train into Manhattan to visit his childhood friend from Nutley, Lloyd Goodrich, who was taking Kenneth Hayes Miller’s life drawing class at the Art Students League. Marsh, who was consistent in his principal interests, said he went primarily “to look at [the] naked models.” (“Reginald Marsh Biography” 8) It was a positive experience and Marsh would be a full-time student in Miller’s life drawing class only three years later. After graduating from Yale, Marsh was convinced by Edmund Duffy, a well-known illustrator, to enroll in John Sloan’s evening drawing class at the Art Students League in 1920. John Sloan made his mark on American art as a member of the Ashcan School of urban realists, focusing on day-to-day life in New York’s poorer neighborhoods and public gathering places. He often portrayed working-class women and had a particular interest in ‘bathing beauties’. In a journal entry a generation earlier, during his Ashcan heyday, Sloan expressed his enthusiasm: “On the beach, the sand covered bathing suits of the women who look and ‘cavort’ are great – look like soft sand sculptures, full of real ‘vulgar’ life” (qtd. in Carlin).
The Ashcan School of artists were considered iconographic renegades at the turn of the twentieth century, but by the early twenties, John Sloan’s well-known aesthetic battles with the traditional art world were taking on a nostalgic quality. Still, to the delight of Reginald and his classmates, Sloan still railed against the conservative tenets of the National Academy of Design, an institution that no longer seemed at all threatening to his students (Marsh, “Let’s Get Back” 292). Not surprisingly, the Ashcan artist encouraged Reginald to continue dealing with contemporary subjects and to play up sexual themes.
As a supplement to his lessons at the Art Students Club, in the early-twenties Marsh joined the nascent Whitney Studio Club. Together the Art Students League and the Whitney Studio Club introduced Marsh to the most important American artists of the twenties and thirties. The Whitney Studio Club began offering life-drawing classes in a tiny West Fourth Street studio space in 1918, with live nude models and a twenty-cent admission charge. Marsh crowded into this class with other future luminaries including Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis and Leon Kroll. An amusing and historic drypoint by Peggy Bacon, variously called The Whitney Studio Club or Frenzied Effort (1925), shows a cramped group of Whitney Studio sketchers studying a svelte, pretty female model; Marsh is the pudgy, balding fellow in the upper center of the composition. The Whitney Studio’s stuffy, claustrophobic conditions occasionally led to conflicts among differing personalities. Marsh, who drew extremely quickly, once clashed with John Stueart Curry, a notoriously slow, plodding draftsman, over how long the model should hold her pose (Berman 270). Reginald wanted a-pose-a-minute; Curry needed more time.
While attending the Art Students League, Reginald began a serious relationship with Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Burroughs, also a League student and daughter of Bryson Burroughs, curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Betty was “an archetypal urban flapper in the 1920s – bright, well-to-do, and, like Marsh, caught up in the fast pace of postwar city life” (Todd 52). They married in the fall of 1923 and Reginald moved out of the Village and into the comfort of the Burroughs family home in suburban Flushing, Queens. The artist whose name is synonymous with gritty urban realism spent the next decade commuting into the city from a bucolic idyll, “in the midst of cows, flowers, trees” (Bishop and Marsh, “Kenneth Hayes Miller” 170). The Burroughs were a clan of artists, like Reginald’s own family, and he reaped immediate benefits from his well-connected new mate. Betty’s brother, Alan Burroughs, an art historian and pioneer in the x-ray examination of paintings, wrote an article for the February 1923 issue of The Arts, entitled “Young America – Reginald Marsh.” Burroughs described Marsh as a social illustrator living wholly in the moment, holding tightly to realism. A mature young man with little interest in other student’s theoretical discussions of abstraction, Marsh was serious to the point of boring. Though naturally shy, speaking in an inaudible mumble, if provoked, he might express himself with a rigid and authoritarian tone. When faced with opposing viewpoints, Marsh could suddenly, without warning, burst into a tirade of inflexible artistic convictions. Burroughs’ article contained a direct quotation from Marsh, a relentless stream-of-consciousness giving a sense of his narcissism and manic energy:
I was born in Paris in ’98. At the age of two I came to New York. Steaming up the harbor I felt, although I never had been there, that here was my home. The skyline of Manhattan … I’m stuck. No I’m not … At the age of thirteen I conducted a mayoralty campaign in the Nutley Bulletin by drawing a series of cartoons. Then I was sent away to military school where I learned to play the drum. I almost became a timekeeper for the American Can Co. And finally, I took exams for Princeton and went to Yale, where I rowed on the twentieth varsity crew. It was a seven-oared crew; we never could find an eighth man … I don’t crave the sordid things in life, like money or fame; beauty – that’s it. I want to educate the public to my pictures … at $500 per. The most important factor in my development has been a half grapefruit for breakfast every morning. Gee, that sounds artistic! (Burroughs 138-9)
“FIFTEEN-DOLLAR-A-WEEK APHRODITES” & “TWENTY-DOLLAR-A-WEEK ADONISES”
Like many artists of his generation, Marsh first found employment as a magazine and newspaper illustrator. He was lucky enough in his very early career to work for a well-known publication and share an apartment with an established veteran. During the early 1920s, before his first marriage, Marsh worked as a staff artist with the New York Daily News covering the vaudeville circuit and roomed with ace cartoonist and satirist Edmund Duffy. Duffy taught the young Marsh how to get into burlesque shows free by promising to draw caricatures of the leading stars for the Sunday papers (Marsh, “Let’s Get Back” 292). Marsh’s New York Daily News illustrations were very popular and the experience opened many doors.
Some of Marsh’s best earliest illustrations were featured in Vanity Fair, a high-end, class-based publication that geared its stories, advertisements and illustrations towards wealthy, educated social elites. Still, Vanity Fair often bypassed rigid social boundaries by covering topics relating to popular culture. Marsh’s illustrations helped Vanity Fair toe the line between high and popular culture, between ‘fine’ and popular art, a distinction that was actually never as clear-cut in America as it was in Europe (Laning, “Eyes of Marsh” 23). Vanity Fair introduced Reginald Marsh to one of his enduring themes. The artist wrote: “It was in the early 1920s that I took up the subject matter I still like to paint best. [Vanity Fair’s editor] Frank Crowninshield sent me out to Coney Island one day to make a drawing, and I’ve been going out there every summer since, sometimes three or four days a week” (Marsh, “Let’s Get Back” 296). Coney Island was, and is, a seaside resort, with sunny beaches and amusement parks, in Brooklyn. Coney Island was an acquired taste, but, according to Marsh, it was worth the effort.
On the first trip each summer, I am nauseated by the smell of the stale food, but after that I get so I don’t notice it. I like to go to Coney Island because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds – crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving – like the great compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens”. (“Reginald Marsh,” Art Students League)
The artist fixated on the spectacle of a 3 ½ mile long boardwalk and sandy beaches blanketed with bare humanity, seemingly created for optimum visual appeal.
Sigmund Freud regarded voyeurism – receiving gratification from watching other people – as a reflection of an individual’s incomplete sexual maturity and a deterrent to full union with others (Freud, Introductory Lectures 300-6). Failing to develop fully into a mature sexual being or being unable to perform sexually may lead a person to seek pleasure through nonphysical means, such as by watching others on a beach or performing on stage. However, Marsh did not seek out Coney Island as a site of voyeurism or exhibitionism; he was sent there on assignment. If seeing hordes of sunbathers (“sometimes three or four times a week”) filled some void in his life, it began as serendipity, a happy byproduct of his artistic career. His subsequent ritualized cultivation of voyeuristic pleasure, on the other hand, was pure choice.
Marsh’s wide public appeal as an artist was based, in part, on his refusal to conceal sexual content. He offered patrons and viewers vicarious visceral pleasure, cloaking sexual fantasies (his and theirs) in day-to-day reality. Iconography fed desire and vice-versa. As Freud wrote:
[T]here is a path that leads back from phantasy to reality–the path, that is, of art. An artist is once more in rudiments an introvert, not far removed from neurosis. He is oppressed by excessively powerful instinctual needs. He desires to win honor, power, wealth, fame and the love of women; but he lacks the means for achieving these satisfactions. Consequently, like any other unsatisfied man, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life to phantasy. (ibid. 374)
Combing Coney Island’s public beaches for “fifteen-dollar-a-week Aphrodites cavorting with their twenty-dollar-a-week Adonises” (“A Half Day” 4), Marsh easily fed his sexual fantasies.
During its halcyon days, especially after it was connected to the rest of New York by subway in 1920, Coney Island in the summertime was the loudest, brightest, the most flamboyantly kitschy sensory extravaganza to be found in the metropolitan area, surpassing even Times Square. A cacophony of merry-go-round music, pipe organs, screaming rollercoasters, shooting-gallery rifles and barking ballyhoo overloaded the ear, while popcorn, warm pulled taffy, ‘coney island’ frankfurters, beer, cheap perfume and salty sea air competed for the olfactory sense. The garish tinseled facades, frenetic rides and sandy coastline drew all economic classes, and Marsh was there waiting to record their frolicking.
When Marsh turned his creative eye to Coney Island’s wild profusion, the codes of morality governing Nutley, New Jersey, or Yale University, were nowhere in sight. Pleasure-seeking beachgoers and a new society were revealed, literally and figuratively. Libated, liberated and uninhibited, revelers wantonly displayed their physical charms for all to see and appreciate. Millions poured onto the sand each summer, seeking to stake out a few square feet amid the masses. For the artist the sheer numbers were an attraction, for others it was a concern. Robert Moses, the Commissioner of New York’s Parks Department, decried the fact the overcrowded beaches afforded each sunbather less than the sixteen square feet required for a coffin! (Martin). Moses thought the congested skin show was repugnant: “It would seem that a community which calls itself civilized might do a little more by way of recreation for its citizens between the tight spaces of the cradle and the grave” (ibid.).
In fact, Moses had a point; the overcrowded beaches, heaving with wriggly bodies, were a cram packed, massive-scaled peepshow. But they were also much more. Shrewd visitors, like Marsh, recognized the rowdy, high-spirited summer invaders, “hell-bent for sun, sand, cheap thrills, and fast food,” represented a cross-section of New York’s plebian throngs, a microcosm of urban American culture (Carlin). Reporters described the diversity, “[y]oung girls in print ad muslin dresses, pinch-faced sheiks with glossy patent leather heads, stout women with many children, stolid laborers in heavy Sunday suits, Jews, Irish, Italians, converge nightly on the Island” (Gallico 40-1).
When Marsh proclaimed “I failed to find anything like [Coney Island] in Europe” (Reginald Marsh: Temperas), he echoed a reporter who, in 1925, accepted Coney Island as a paradigm of America’s democratic spirit:
When you bathe at Coney Island you bathe in the American Jordan. It is holy water. Nowhere else in the United States will you see so many races mingle in a common purpose for a common good. Democracy meets here and has its first interview skin to skin. The garments of Puritanism are given a kick that sends them flying before the winds. Here you find the real interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. The most good for the greatest number. (Cautela 283-4)
Democracy is messy, but the messiness can be a bonanza for the acute observer.
Coney Island’s sunbathers offered an appealing anatomical and social glimpse, which Marsh naturally wanted to exploit. He received encouragement from his principal Art Students League instructors John Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller to make the most of Coney Island’s pictorial opportunities. In July 1926, Miller and Marsh visited Coney Island’s amusement parks and together rode all of the roller coasters. Later, surveying the sunbathers, Miller turned to Marsh and said, “I am a painter of the body. You are a painter of the body. Sex is your theme.” Later, Marsh happily recalled, “[that] was a grand day” (Bishop and Marsh, “Kenneth Hayes Miller” 170).
For the most part, Coney Island’s beachgoers came from very different backgrounds than Reginald Marsh; the artist’s wealth and education set him apart from the masses. Marsh was nevertheless comfortable communing with the throngs. On his summer jaunts, he was never without his sketchpads and never at rest. Before reaching ‘the island’, Marsh sketched his fellow day-trippers on ferries headed to the resort. Once disembarked, he quickly headed for a bathhouse to change into swim trunks, then picked his way slowly through the sunbathers sprawled on the sand. As he recorded the spectacle, curious onlookers peered over his shoulder (Laning, Sketchbooks 16). Then, laying his sketchpad down, Marsh waded out into the water and dog-paddled through the crowded surf, “his head held high above the water, while he ogled the churning arms and legs, bellies and bottoms” (Ibid.). He was happy because direct contact with the all-American crowds and their rituals of pleasure filled a void in his life, perhaps temporarily easing the anxiety and embarrassment caused by problems with his own sexuality. According to his close friend, Edward Laning, a childhood illness had rendered Marsh sterile and affected his ability to perform sexually (Cohen 220, note 55). Coney Island crowds must have provided some release.
THRIVING ON “SLOP-JAR THEATRICALS”
Marsh was an unusual and ironic character – a rich man fascinated by poverty, a blueblood who wanted to recast ‘vulgar’ popular culture as fine art. Coney Island offered fleshy masses, but only during the summer months; in winter he needed to find similar subjects within the city. During the summer of 1926, Kenneth Hayes Miller convinced Marsh to spend the season in Manhattan (rather than commuting from Flushing) and sublet Alexander Brook’s vacant studio on 14th Street, near Miller’s own. The city was a visual feast for the taking. Marsh took Miller’s advice to buy a pair of field glasses and focus on painting the “ugly people” (Bishop and Marsh, “Kenneth Hayes Miller” 170). Thereafter, Marsh worked in a series of 14th Street studios before finally settling into a two-story studio at 1 Union Square West, the Lincoln Arcade Building, in the catbird seat overlooking Union Square Park. Arriving at Union Square in those days was no different than today. Subway trains deposited commuters at the ‘14th Street Station’, an anthill of underground activity. Exiting the train platform, one found his/her way through raucous, impatient mobs while ascending to elbowroom at street level. Union Square was always a congested mess, only exacerbated by the convenience of subways. Marsh studied the crowds below his studio, reveling in depicting closely packed multitudes of people on the go, his compositions often seeming more like motion pictures than freeze frame images.
Climbing out of the subway station on the southern edge of Union Square Park, commuters faced the Lincoln Arcade Building. On any given day one might look up and see Reginald Marsh peering down through binoculars from his window at strangers below, “stripped down to his shorts, brush in hand, working like a demon” (Seiberling 86). People, rather than architecture or landmarks, were Union Square’s main draw. “Youths and girls, tramps, sidewalk orators, occasional loafers taking the sun, the aged, and small scrambling children … gave the Square its] loquacious and robust vitality” (Johnson 9). The social jumble was intoxicating. Marsh was uncritical, a sympathetic spectator, celebrating the neighborhood’s panoply of budget shops and amusements, and its leftist flavor. An appreciative slummer, he relished the bohemian atmosphere, happily recording the dynamic social parade. Marsh saw Manhattan through the sexualized eyes of a masculine flâneur/artist. He searched the city for the ideal subject matter, one which would satisfy his rebellious spirit and reflect a unique, sexualized, American theme.
Burlesque was the artist’s most provocative subject and, surprisingly, one of the least reflected on by art historians. Much can be learned about Marsh by considering the intense gratification he derived from visiting burlesque halls to study the performers and audiences. In a wonderfully revealing statement, Marsh told Isabel Bishop it was New York’s countless opportunities to watch strangers that made the city an exhilarating place to be an artist: “In and around [New York] were dumps, docks and slums all wonderful to paint, and, in the city, subways, people and burlesque shows where one could sit in undisturbed comfort to study the male patrons grouped in boxes resembling the opera in Paris enjoying the ladies of the chorus lighted to show their bodies and costumes” (Bishop ix).
By the late 1920s Marsh was a frequent, year-round visitor to burlesque establishments near his 14th Street studios. Artist Adolf Dehn recalled a summer night in 1928:
[W]hen I lined up outside New York’s old Irving Burlesque Theatre [at East 14th Street, between Fourth and Third Avenues]. Someone back of me punched me in the ribs and grunted, ‘Hello.’ It was Reggie Marsh. ‘Just back from Vermont,’ he mumbled. ‘Stayed three days. Meant to stay three weeks. Couldn’t stand it. It’s too damn green. Had to come back’. (Seiberling 85)
The Irving Burlesque Theatre appeared in many of Marsh’s prints. An extremely pictorial etching entitled Irving Place Burlesk was his first major portrayal of the establishment. A smiling stripper basks in spotlight unfastening her skirt’s clasp to the anticipatory delight of an audience crammed into a glistening, gilded art-deco interior. Relegated to the bottom left corner, the solitary full-length dancer, occupies a tiny fraction of the overall scene and has a vacant stare, not really looking at the audience. Docile men depicted in the darkened audience seem to control her with their vision. We sense Marsh’s own vision and he may have even included a disguised self-portrait, a portly man with thinning hair seen from behind in the lower left. The image suggests both the artist’s personal longings and alludes to the masculine desires of his audience. Art historian Griselda Pollock wrote about the famous barmaid in Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) and her “disturbing impassivity”; she “appears but she does not see” (Pollock 301-2). The same holds true for Marsh’s stripper. To use Pollock’s words, the woman embodies “men’s fantasies about female availability in which woman is like a blank page upon which is inscribed a masculine script” (Pollock 282-3, 307). However, Manet made his barmaid the focus of his image; Marsh made the male viewers the focus of his image. The men dominating Irving Place Burlesk included well-dressed, prosperous and identifiable individuals, including Marsh’s childhood friend Lloyd Goodrich (Sasowsky 151). The etching’s theme is the men’s reactions to the dancer, rather than the dancer herself. Although Marsh had unlimited access to nude female models, apparently, taking in the spectacle of an undressed women with other men fed his voyeuristic and artistic pleasure. Sharing the experience with clothed men in the darkened theater intensified the erotic charge of the dancer’s well-lit nakedness.
Laura Mulvey described this “male gaze” in her seminal 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” According to Mulvey, art viewers are often presumed to be male, and, as a result, artworks frequently address powerful, subconscious male desires. Marsh’s burlesque images appeal(ed) to men who delight(ed) in looking at strippers, as the artist did. His pictures were a form of wish fulfillment. This helps explain why four-fifths of Irving Place Burlesk’s composition comprises male spectators, with eyes riveted on the dancer. Art historian T.J. Clark has written that a female nude “is a picture for men to look at, in which Woman is constructed as an object of somebody else’s desire” (Clark 131). Sitting in the burlesque audience, Marsh may have felt that his gaze and desire exerted some kind of control over the performer. Likewise, the men who purchased Marsh’s etching felt they exerted control over the performer, but second-hand and privately.
Marsh portrayed burlesque performances for at least three reasons. First, on a primal level, he simply found pleasure in observing nude women. As with his Coney Island beach scenes, Marsh diverted his libidinal desires into a relatively socially acceptable form, channeling his sexual drive into an iconographic choice (see Freud, Three Essays 225-9). His close friend Lloyd Goodrich explained: “The world of pleasure fascinates [Marsh] and his work is full of sex, but there is little glamour in his viewpoint, which is sensual rather than romantic” (American Watercolor 97). Second, on a formal level, he was attracted to the subject’s exceptionally picturesque qualities. “I like to paint burlesque,” he explained, “because it puts together in one picture a nude or near nude woman, baroque architecture for a setting, and a crowd of men, very typical men, for an audience” (Reginald Marsh Memorial). The “very typical men” comment is telling. Very “typical” people were also on Coney Island beaches. For a wealthy man like Marsh, visiting burlesque halls became an elaborate visual game of sexual slumming. “Whether in the form of surreptitiously viewing a peep show [or] enjoying a performance of burlesque […] slumming [could be] an exceeding visual event. It was a matter of leisurely sightseeing” (Mumford 152-3). Finally, on a more deep-seated level, Marsh found in the “burlesque queen and her drooling drones” a suitable spectacle for creating uniquely American urban scenes infused with a hint of social anarchy.
One of the artist’s favorite hangouts was Billy Minsky’s Republic Burlesque on Forty-Second Street in the Broadway district. The Minsky name was synonymous with the lewder side of burlesque. Four brothers, Billy, Abe, Herbert and Morton Minsky, along with master promoter Joseph Weinstock, operated five of New York’s original fourteen burlesque houses, but the Republic was the flagship. Minsky’s offered four 2-hour shows per day, featuring vaudeville-style variety acts, a famed chorus line and big-named strippers like Gypsy Rose Lee, Margie Hart and Gladys Fox, who earned up to $1000 a week. Over time Minsky’s left behind customary comedy-based performances in favor of more salacious exhibitions, in response to three blows that shook the variety business at the end of the twenties: the stock market crash, the appearance of sound motion pictures and the proliferation of home radios. These developments killed Vaudeville; burlesque only survived by offering what movies and radio could not, live erotic shows. Minsky’s relatively smutty productions were infinitely fascinating for Marsh. A 1935 painting, Minsky’s Chorus, features the Minsky’s trademark chorus line. Eight lithe, bikinied beauties gyrate sensuously, each exuding copious sex appeal. While the artist was clearly enthralled, others were less impressed.
As burlesque grew more and more risqué over the 1930s, moral watchdogs united in their indignation. A 1937 Life magazine exposé decried that increasingly in burlesque, “women were nuder, its jokes smuttier, its sketches more perverted” (“The Church Wars” 20). The more flesh was shown the more likely a police raid became. When in April 1937 the licenses of New York’s burlesque houses expired, community and religious leaders demanded they not be renewed. Patrick Cardinal Hayes, speaking for the Catholic Church, declared the city needed to “rid itself of stage racketeers who thrive on slop-jar theatricals” (Ibid.). Jewish and Protestant voices joined the chorus of censure. Hearings before the Licensure Commissioner, Paul Moss, disclosed lurid tales of indecency and debauchery. This drew intense media and public attention, resulting in raids on burlesque houses in Brooklyn and arrests of striptease dancers. Feeling his legal right to publically exposed flesh imperiled, Marsh testified at a 1937 public legislative hearing in burlesque’s defense (Goodrich, Reginald Marsh 9), but the handwriting was on the wall. Reforming Mayor Fiorello La Guardia finally caved into public demand and closed down the burlesque houses for good.
Even though the burlesque halls closed in New York City, that couldn’t stop Marsh. He simply went slumming to the outskirts of Staten Island, or Union City and Hoboken, New Jersey, where legal strip clubs still catered to Manhattan exiles (Conrad 97). One rainy morning in 1942, just after Manhattan’s burlesque era ended, a model named Brünhilde arrived at Marsh’s Union Square studio for a day of posing in the nude. She was surprised when the artist appeared at the door, holding a sketchpad and dressed to go out. Marsh and Brünhilde went down to Battery Park and boarded the Staten Island Ferry. After the lengthy boat ride, they took a trolley for an hour to a disreputable area. Marsh finally announced they had arrived at the “best burlesque in the state.” He bought two box seats and they went in. In the darkness, with Brünhilde at his side, the artist sketched the attractive chorus dancers. He asked Brünhilde to watch the women closely so she could duplicate their movements back at his studio in Union Square. As they were leaving, the manager stopped Brünhilde and asked: “If you’d like a tryout, we’re short one girl” (Reed 23).
Reginald Marsh has been depicting burlesque themes for more than two decades, but, eventually, he tired of the subject, as if some aesthetic or emotional law of diminishing returns had rendered it less satisfying. As his interest waned, his imagery became more grotesque and pessimistic. A growing ambivalence entered the stripper images, as the artist’s attention turned increasingly to the dancers’ sexual power. The depravity of well-heeled spectators became the nucleus of his pictures, which were often rendered in sickly yellow green and shocking blood red. Audiences grew phantasmal and the striptease nightmarish. The vampire-like dancer in Strip Tease in New Jersey (1945) directs a brazen glare towards cadaver-like men, thrusting her hips violently, not sensually, using her sexuality like a weapon. The animalistic dancer is not alluringly seductive or pretty; she appears a bloodthirsty sexual predator who would be in her element in Edvard Munch’s anxious imagery. Strip Tease in New Jersey’s mood was described as “blackness ten times black” (Laning, “Eyes of Marsh” 23). Perhaps Marsh, the consummate flâneur, ultimately realized he was also under scrutiny in the darkened auditorium, and the game became less fun. And he was not the only upper-class burlesque enthusiast. Strip Tease in New Jersey contains portraits of two of Marsh’s friends from Yale and fellow aficionados, William Benton, a future U.S. Senator from Connecticut (1949–1953) and publisher of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1943–1973), and Henry Luce, head of a publishing empire that included Time, Fortune and Life magazines. Benton and Luce are “agog over [the] robust chorine” featured in Strip Tease in New Jersey (Doss 212-3). Senator Benton owned many Marsh burlesque scenes, which he hung proudly in his apartment in Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Towers. When Pope Paul VI visited New York in 1965 he stayed in Benton’s apartment, and American security agents placed one of the burlesque paintings in the closet before the pontiff arrived. They claimed they did so not because of the nudity, but because of the rapacious, indecent expressions on the faces of the male audience members (Gilroy 56).
Although by 1945, Marsh, Benton and Luce were forced to tramp to New Jersey and elsewhere to see the striptease, they preferred up-scale burlesque houses and during the 1930s there were many near Marsh’s Union Square studio. But Marsh was also familiar with lower-end establishments in the nearby Bowery, which served a general clientele and gave poor and homeless men a place to while away the day in a fantasyland of flesh and comedy, away from the mean streets. Reginald Marsh had a remarkable empathy and affinity for the men of the Bowery, whom he often drew and painted. Bowery burlesque doors swung open at ten in the morning and the average admission fee was a relatively-reasonable ten cents (the cost of a haircut at a barber college). To give some perspective, during the Depression, flophouse rates cost twenty-five cents per bed per night, making all-day burlesque reviews a bargain. Bowery dancers did not get rich, but many were able to eke out a barely respectable income trafficking their energy and sex appeal. Filmmakers in Depression-era Hollywood marketed many movies centered on the vivid text of the working-class female body. Mae West, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers each achieved fame portraying ‘working girls’ trading their bodies as show girls or prostitutes to keep off the dole (Rabinowitz 201). But, whereas Hollywood almost always delivered a happy ending, Marsh dealt more frankly with urban reality.
After 1929, as the Depression era wore on, the torpidity of omnipresent despondent men milling in public parks and breadlines contrasted greatly with the raw energy of ‘working girls,’ whether on the movie screen or burlesque stage. Marsh’s art explored the relationship between ‘beauties and bums’, a theatrical motif he borrowed directly from the burlesque stage. Burlesque was not an endless stream of stripping and chorus lines; shows also featured variety performers, music and comedy routines; the format descended from earlier Vaudeville and minstrel shows (Allen ix, xxi). The comedy routines were often insipid and monotonous, invariably involving grotesque, scatological, crass and crude subjects, but they spoke to the ordinary tastes and enthusiasms of America’s proletariat and were loaded with “low-enjoying power” (Ibid.) Over time, reviews gradually replaced black-faced minstrel performers with cunning (white-faced) tramps as the master-of-ceremony. These comic vagabonds delighted audiences with raunchy skits and delightfully shocking banter with attractive female dancers. Edward Laning frequently accompanied Marsh to the clubs and he described a ubiquitous routine featuring sexed-up virgins/whores (beauties) and down-and-out leering lechers (bums):
[There’s an] endlessly repeated act which fills the interval between the ‘strip-tease’ performances – the obscene horseplay of the two comedian-derelicts who stumble drunkenly before a painted backdrop. Suddenly, from the wings, a pretty girl trips rapidly across the stage. She looks only toward the audience as she crosses, and disappears from sight. The two comedians react violently but aimlessly to this erotic apparition, their obscene confusion increases – when suddenly the beautiful creature reappears and crosses again in the opposite direction. The plight of the two becomes desperate and by the time the girl has made three or four such visitations they are out cold. The girl meanwhile has not spoken, nor been touched. She is a mere catalyst, unaffected and unreal – an automaton. (Laning, “Eyes of Marsh” 24)
The salacious rapport of the comic tramp and the sexy girl captivated Marsh. Its mischievousness hinted at a mild form of anarchy playing into the artist’s distaste for social pretence and his sympathy for the down-and-out. The ‘beauty and bum’ dynamic came to permeate his work, becoming one of his principal themes from the early-1930s onward. But the beauty and bum were not shown on the stage; they were transported to the streets. Many of Marsh’s best-known works juxtapose fetching female automatons (beauties) with hapless male derelicts (bums), including Tattoo and Haircut (1932), In Fourteenth Street (1934), Strokey’s Bar (1940) and Eyes Tested (1944). In Eyes Tested, a fetching woman strolls along a city street under a series of optometrist placards featuring surreal disembodied pince-nez glasses. The signage eyes ‘look out’ of the image in a comic and unsettling way. Beside the attractive woman, a hapless hobo sits in a doorway, his head placed pathetically between his knees. In the background an unfortunate man with a single leg scoots along aided by crutches. He cannot stride strongly and confidently as the woman does. Eyes Tested is rich with contrasts, the primary one placing someone attractive within an unattractive setting. The woman titillates; the men trouble.
One should not forget, though, Marsh actually admired poor men in certain ways, including their freedom from many social constraints. Ralph Allen, an expert on popular theatre, explained that burlesque’s comic tramps – the basis of the men in Eyes Tested and other paintings – were neither pathetic losers nor ‘tearful tramps’ like Charlie Chaplin. They represented nature’s children, “slaves of stimulus” following their libidos without restraint, inhibitions or the hindrance of moral pretences (Allen 26). Indeed, this made them similar to Reginald Marsh. Regardless of his upper-class background, in the burlesque audience Marsh rooted for comic vagabonds because he envied their freedom and reliance on animal instinct, which invariably triumphed over reason, intellect and authority (ibid.). Burlesque pleased his inner passion for disorder, “[teasing out his] desire to renounce the painful effort of intelligence and behave as [a] creature of instinct not of will” (ibid.). Burlesque addressed “temporary antisocial childlike inclinations”, dramatizing “the wish-fulfilment fantasies” of society” (ibid.). In like manner, Marsh’s art revelled in the anti-social, wish-fulfilment fantasy of burlesque, its hardedge softened and aestheticized for maximum visual pleasure.
Seen through modern eyes, Reginald Marsh’s Coney Island and burlesque images seem less provocative, even quaint. However, in their day, the iconography was unusual and exhilarating. Marsh had manifold motivations for depicting frolicking proletarian sunbathers and stripping dancers. For one, he was driven to challenge and surpass his conservative father. Knowing full well Fred Marsh disapproved of his lower-class subjects, particularly the ‘vulgar’ burlesque scenes (Todd 55), Marsh still churned out hundreds of such images. He truly made ‘sex his theme’, as Kenneth Hayes Miller had suggested – a decision designed to shock his father and the art establishment. John Sloan’s career followed a similar trajectory; he also selected lowbrow subjects to defy conventions. However, there were other strong motivations. Marsh freely acknowledged his fundamental appreciation for the anatomy of sun-baked Coney Island bathers and the systematic eroticism of the striptease. Such visual displays served as a vicarious substitute for personal intimacy. The artist was delighted Vanity Fair asked him to depict Coney Island, but his time spent sitting in darkened burlesque halls and endlessly recreating its sexual entertainment was a personal choice. Reginald Marsh’s artistic subjects had certain affinities with the enigmatic artist’s own psyche. Coney Island, burlesque and Reginald Marsh were seemingly free and hedonistic, at times grotesque, and anti-authoritarian. Eschewing moralism, instinct held dominion over intellect. Unrefined amusements provided Reginald Marsh popular avenues though which he satisfied his own instincts while productively playing off the desires of others.
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