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Lower Manhattan

On view

Lower Manhattan

Artist: Reginald Marsh (American, 1898 - 1954)

Date: 1930
Medium: Tempera on canvas mounted on Masonite
Dimensions:
Framed: 28 × 52 × 2 1/4in. (71.1 × 132.1 × 5.7cm)
Overall: 24 x 48in. (61 x 121.9cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Reginald Marsh 1930'
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.195
Text Entries

By 1930, when Reginald Marsh painted Lower Manhattan,(1) the painter had reached the beginning of artistic maturity. His 1930 one-man exhibition at the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery had established his reputation as a painter of New York City, of dance marathons and burlesque shows, of Coney Island and the Bowery. It was at that time that Marsh was adopted by his contemporary painters, the so- called Regionalists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, as one of their own. Marsh’s fixation on the city (he rarely left New York) was viewed as an urban counterpart to Regionalism. While the Regionalists painted the barn dances, wheat harvests, and cornfields of the Midwest, Marsh painted the “talkies,” breadlines, and shop windows of Manhattan. For Marsh a barn dance was a dance marathon, a landscape was the New York skyline. In either case the turn to American subject matter and representational styles of painting in the 1930s reflected the country’s growing concern with itself. Paintings of America, whether urban or Western, illustrated a popular and chauvinistic tradition independent of Europe, and affirmed a national identity in the midst of economic Depression.

What constituted the particular success of Marsh’s own painting style at the time, however, was his shift to egg tempera, the medium used in Lower Manhattan.(2) Marsh got the recipe for egg tempera, an old master medium, from Benton.(3) A draftsman above all, Marsh found that tempera allowed him a fluidity in painting that he missed when working in oil. Since tempera dried quickly he could paint over the surface rapidly, infusing the work with a linear intensity that matched the animated character he found in city life.

 Throughout his career, Marsh made many paintings and prints of the New York skyline. All were based on sketches he made from the piers of Brooklyn or New Jersey. In some sense, the skyline is the obverse side of the artist’s preoccupation with the public life of the city. Marsh filled his paintings with crowds of people rushing about in an urban environment replete with signs and advertisements. In paintings such as Lower Manhattan the artist focuses instead on the physical setting of the city seen from a distance.

Still, Marsh’s skyline is not a static depiction of an island of massive skyscrapers. It is restless and alive. The excitement of the scene comes from incipient and actual activity—the billowing smoke of the tugboat as it pushes through the harbor waters, the choppy waves, the cloud- filled sky. An oncoming storm is made palpable in the yellow light thrown onto the sides of the buildings, causing them to pulsate against the steel-blue sky and the purple-green water. Marsh’s skyline anticipates the city life within it. It is a turbulent, man-made drama of buildings, which nervously unfurl themselves against sea and sky. The skyline Marsh renders is as emblematic of urban America in the 1930s as the dance marathon or movie palace facade; it evokes a city and populace in perpetual motion.

 

Notes

1. In a 1939 letter to Edward W. Root, the original purchaser of Lower Manhattan, Marsh referred to the painting as “New York Skyline 1930.” (This letter is in the possession of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute.) Root purchased the painting in January of 1931 from the Rehn Gallery in New York City.

2. In the letter cited above, Marsh described how he repaired this painting nine years after it was first executed using egg tempera and varnish.

3. Marsh copied the recipe for egg tempera into a notebook which he devoted to methods of painting and printmaking, now with his papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

 

Copyright
Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s) / Licensing by ARS, New York, NY.