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American Drawings and Watercolors / Reginald Marsh

By Maureen C. O'Brien
  • RISDM 79-116

Reginald Marsh
American, 1898-1954
Two Girls on Ferry, ca. 1950
Ink over pencil on paper
57.1 x 75.3 cm (22 1/2 x 29 5/8 inches)
Bequest of Felicia Meyer Marsh 79.116

Reginald Marsh, the son of American artists Fred Dana Marsh and Alice Randall Marsh, was born in Paris in 1898. He grew up in comfortable circumstances in Nutley, New Jersey, and was educated at Lawrenceville School and Yale University. In the early 1920s Marsh worked in New York as a freelance artist for magazines and newspapers, developing an energized drawing style that he used to illustrate city life and its various entertainments. He also took classes at the Art Students League, studying briefly with John Sloan, George Luks, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and George Bridgman, and joined the Whitney Studio Club in 1923. That same year, Marsh married Betty Burroughs, an artist whose father, Bryson Burroughs, was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.1

In 1925 Marsh returned to France for the first time since his childhood and spent several months studying Old Master paintings in the Louvre. His love of Rubens, whose great Kermesse he copied in Paris, provided the foundation for a body of work in which women—sunbathing, walking, seated on subways—were represented as modern-day counterparts of Rubens’s full-blown female forms. When he returned to New York, Marsh focused his attention on the theater of contemporary urban life, describing the city’s denizens against the backdrop of its architecture and amusements. He recombined these themes in various media for decades, without ever losing his joy in their accessibility and freshness.

A large sheet in RISD’s collection, Two Girls on a Ferry, employs a vibrating calligraphy Marsh invented later in his career to emphasize movement. His curved, radiating pen strokes animate the costumes of the shapely young women, ruffling their skirts and capturing the sensation of the breeze on the Staten Island ferry on its approach from Governors Island. Looking out from the railing, a middle-aged gentleman in a fedora takes in the downtown skyline in a panorama that sweeps across the southern tip of Manhattan, from the Whitehall Building at left to the Art Deco–style Cities Service Building at 70 Pine Street.2

RISDM 79-115

Reginald Marsh
American, 1898-1954
Train, 1933
Watercolor over crayon on paper
35.6 x 50.6 cm (14 x 19 7/8 inches)
Bequest of Felicia Meyer Marsh 79.115

Marsh’s concurrent passion for trains provided material for an opposing motif to the exuberance of urban life. Beginning in 1928, he made numerous prints and paintings that featured the trains that transported Americans and their goods cross-country, including one that he painted in fresco as a proposal for the Post Office Department murals in Washington, D.C3. The Erie Yards in Jersey City provided a convenient locus for studying these impressive machines, including the steam locomotives that served the passenger and freight routes of the New York Central Railroad. In this profile view, Train, Marsh depicts a workhorse engine resting in the train yard. Its design and wheel configuration identify it as a switcher, a heavy locomotive that was predominantly used to move cars in and out of train yards. The front grill, or pilot, is absent, and there is a protective railing as well as two platforms below the nose for workers to stand on as the train moved through the yard4.

RISDM 79-114

Reginald Marsh
American, 1898-1954
Portrait of Llewelyn Powys, ca. 1928
Brown ink wash on paper
37 x 53 cm (14 5/8 x 20 7/8 inches)
Bequest of Felicia Meyer Marsh 79.114

Marsh’s portrait of his friend Llewelyn Powys represents a more personal aspect of his life. Through Betty Burroughs, Marsh met Powys (1884–1939), an English writer who lived in New York between 1921 and 1924 before marrying Alyse Gregory, an editor of The Dial magazine5. Marsh and Powys developed a warm friendship, and during the summer of 1926 the Marshes rented a house in England not far from “White Nose,” the cottage at Dorset, Dorchester, where Powys and his wife lived6. They continued their friendship when Powys returned to the United States late in 1927 as a visiting critic for the book supplement of the New York Herald Tribune, and vacationed together in Belgium in the summer of 1928. Marsh described Powys as “a strikingly handsome man, a poetic and aristocratic head being crowned with fierce golden curls and a strongly boned forehead … . He was simple and, as he said, ‘a countryman.’ … He gave generously of friendship to me, taught me much and encouraged me in my work as a painter.”7 In the 1930s Marsh’s second wife, Felicia, was in turn made welcome in a friendship that endured until Powys’s death from tuberculosis in 1939.8

Marsh made several drawings and sketchbook studies of Powys in 1926, followed by two portrait etchings9, and also exhibited a painting of Powys at the Whitney Studio Club’s 1928 members’ exhibition10. The ink wash Portrait of Llewelyn Powys in RISD’s collection is undated, but its pose and costume are similar to those of Powys in a photograph taken by Doris Ulmann in 1928.11 Marsh’s ability to capture his subject was praised by Powys, who described one of the images as “the embodiment of the Powys family [—] the trunk from which we were chopped, the rock from which we were cut.” Alyse Gregory expressed a desire to have Marsh paint Powys again in 1934, writing, “I long to have you paint him—he never since I have known him has looked so striking.”12

Ironically, the final painted portrait of Powys was to be a large, disturbing canvas made by the German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Powys’s neighbor in Davos. Powys’s genuine empathy for Kirchner did not enhance his opinion of that effort; he described the portrayal to Marsh as a “slipper-slopper studio-prophet” and a “fine idealist without a wrinkle in his forehead.”13 He shared this opinion with Marsh shortly before his death, along with a sympathetic essay he had written about Kirchner. 

Maureen O’Brien Curator, Painting and Sculpture


1After her divorce from Marsh in 1933, Betty Burroughs married Thomas F. Woodhouse. She later became a museum educator and was on the staff of the RISD Museum from 1951 to 1961. http://risdmuseum.org/manual/241_100_years_of_commitment She discussed Reginald Marsh in an interview with Garnett McCoy for the Archives of American Art in 1977: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-betty-bryson-woodhouse-13140

2Marsh’s prints document the rise of lower Manhattan’s skyline, particularly between 1927 and 1932. New construction could be sketched from the point of view of Governors Island or consulted in photographs and postcard views. In Marsh’s etching of 1930, the skyscraper at 70 Pine Street which anchors RISD’s drawing was absent from the skyline, and the tall spireless tower at 20 Exchange Street, second from right, appeared under scaffolding. http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/366826

3In 1935, Marsh made a large painting of a locomotive in fresco as a proposal for the Post Office Department commission. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/may/07/entertainment/la-et-cm-huntington-buys-reginald-marsh-painting-20130507. His early interest in painting locomotives is discussed in http://collections.mcny.org/Gallery/24UPN47LTX1 which cites Barbara Haskell’s observation in Swing Time: Reginald Marsh and the Exuberant Chaos of Thirties New York (London: D. Giles Ltd., 2012), that he was inspired by the work of fellow artist Charles Burchfield. See Burchfield’s Gates Down (1920) in the collection of the RISD Museum as an example of that artist’s interest in trains.

4Railway historian Roger P. Hensley, publisher of the website Railroads of Madison County, Indiana, in correspondence with the author, described the purpose of this locomotive and identified it as a USRA 0-8-0 switcher.

5Richard Perceval Graves, The Brothers Powys (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983), 181, notes that prior to the time of Powys’s marriage to Alyse Gregory in October 1924, he had been romantically involved with Betty Burroughs.

6Marsh’s ongoing friendship with Powys through the 1930s, and his visits to see him in Austerlitz, New York, and in Clavadel, Davos Platz, Switzerland, are documented in letters in the Reginald Marsh Papers, Archives of American Art.

7Marsh’s moving tribute to Powys is quoted in Malcolm Elwin, The Life of Llewelyn Powys (London: John Lane, 1946), 172.

8See Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, Reel 308 for Powys’s letters to Marsh (1927–1939). In 1938 Marsh visited Powys in Arosa, Switzerland, where the writer lived during his final illness.

9For sketches of Powys made while Marsh was in England in 1926, see Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, Reel NRM3, Sketchbook #4: fr. 633, 634 (July 8, 1926), 643 (June, 1926), and Sketchbook #5: fr. 677 (August 6, 1926). See also finished drawings of Powys seated in a chair in his library in Dorset in Reginald Marsh Papers Box 5, Folder 18, Nos. 20–21. For Marsh’s etchings, see Norman Sasowsky, The Prints of Reginald Marsh, an Essay and Definitive Catalog of His Linoleum Cuts, Etchings, Engravings and Lithographs, (New York, Clarkson N. Potter, 1976) Sasowsky, 1976, p. 105, no. 42, Llewelyn Powys, 1927 (estimate), 3 1/2 x 2 1/2 in., ill.; and p. 146, no. 98, Llewelyn Powys, October 26, 1930, 5 x 4 in., ill.

10Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Paintings by the Members of the Club, 29 April–26 May, 1928, no. 116, Llewelyn Powys.

11At least two photographs from the 1928 Ulmann sitting are known. The frontal pose, “Llewelyn Powys in New York, 1928,” is reproduced in Elwin, The Life of Llewelyn Powys, opp. p. 164. A second image, with Powys’s head turned slightly, is very close to Marsh’s wash drawing, but he appears a bit heavier and more rumpled and has a brighter look in his eyes in Marsh’s version.

12Alyse Gregory wrote to Marsh on April 7[?], 1934, “I long to have you paint him—he never since I have known him has looked so striking.” Archives of American Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, Reel 308, fr. 362.

13Powys to Marsh, 1939, Clavadel, Davos Platz, in The Letters of Llewelyn Powys, selected and edited by Louis Wilkinson with an introduction by Alyse Gregory (London: John Lane, 1943), 277–78. “It reaches from ceiling to floor and is admired by lovers of ‘modern art,’ but Alyse and I can’t abide it.” Powys’s friendship with Kirchner is discussed by Jacqueline Peltier in “Llewelyn Powys et Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, ou l’histoire d’un portrait,” which includes a photograph of the now lost portrait. Powys, Swiss Essays (London: John Lane, 1947), includes the essay on Kirchner Powys sent to Marsh in 1938.