Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pictures and vaudeville

‘Went to Loew’s theatre to-day and it’s allright. They had moving pictures and vaudeville. Gosh the acrobats were swelling fat with muscles and they bounded around like monkeys.’ This is from the adolescent diary of Reginald Marsh, an American social realist painter, born 120 years ago today. Although he started his career as an illustrator and cartoonist (the diary is full of cute drawings), he went on to become famous for his depictions of New York life, not least vaudeville scenes.

Reginald Marsh was born on 14 March 1989 in Paris. His father, a muralist, and his mother, a miniaturist painter, were both well-off Americans. They returned to the US, to Nutley, New Jersey, when Reginald was two years old. He attended Lawrenceville School, and he graduated from Yale University in 1920. On moving to New York in search of free lance illustration work, he was employed to sketch performers for the New York Daily News. He also began taken classes at the Art Students League of New York, where the Ashcan painter John Sloan was one of his teachers (see also Make the draperies move). In 1923, Marsh married fellow student Betty Burroughs (who went on to become a sculptor).

Marsh was one of the first cartoonists taken on by The New Yorker which launched in 1925, and he remained a contributor for nearly 20 years. Also in 1925, he travelled to Paris and was much inspired by the Old Masters and Renaissance painting principles. From the early 1930s, he became well known for his paintings of New York - especially of vaudeville shows, the burlesque stage, street life in the Bowery district, and Coney Island scenes - which often displayed a sense of gritty social realism, somewhat at odds with his affluent background. Among his most important paintings are Why Not Use the “L”? (1930), Tattoo and Haircut (1932), and Twenty-cent Movie (1936). In 1935, he decorated in fresco the Post Office Building in Washington, D. C., and the Custom House in New York City. Around this time, he divorced Burroughs and married Felicia Meyer, a landscape painter.

During the 1940s, Marsh became a teacher at the Art Students League of New York (one of his students being Roy Lichtenstein), and he began drawing for magazines such as Esquire and Life. He was awarded the Gold Medal for Graphic Arts by the American Academy and the National Institute for Arts and Letters. He died, shortly after, in 1954, struck down by a heart attack. There seem to be no published biographies of Marsh, and there is not a wealth of information about him online either - but Wikipedia has a substantial article, and there are short entries at the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and

Marsh kept a variety of notebooks and diaries throughout his life, although most of these are sketch books or appointment diaries, not personal journals. A comprehensive listing of his diaries can be found in the finding aid compiled by Jennifer Meehan for the Archives of American Art (the largest collection of primary resources documenting the history of the visual arts in the US, housed in the Smithsonian Institute). The finding aid says this about the diaries:

Marsh’s adolescent diaries date from 1912 to 1913 and from 1916. The 1912 diary is the most complete, with daily entries for the entire year. The 1913 and 1916 diaries are composed of almost daily entries for the months of January and February, but are blank for the remaining months of each year. Adolescent diaries primarily record Marsh’s daily outdoor activities (such as skating, sledding, and coasting in the winter, and playing tennis and swimming in the summer) with friends including Lloyd Goodrich, the day’s weather, his studies, illnesses, and outings to the theater (to see movies and vaudeville shows). Diaries also allude to his artistic activities, such as painting and drawing a weekly cartoon for The Nutley Bulletin, and include some illustrations and sketches.

Marsh’s art work diaries date from 1929 to 1933. Each diary consists of an “index” of the art work referred to therein, including title, date, and page numbers for relevant entries, and dated entries, comprising notes about the particular art work on which he worked that day. His notes typically include information about dimensions, methods and techniques used, time worked, what was drawn, and/or what prints were made. These diaries document the work he carried out, as well as the way in which he worked, on his paintings and prints during this time period. Similar notes for the time period from 1935 to 1944 can be found in the art notebooks.

Marsh’s engagement diaries, dating from 1935 to 1954, and desk calendars, dating from 1931 to 1934, seem to have been used to keep track of and record his daily events and activities. Rather than typical diary entries, these comprise daily, weekly, and/or monthly calendars with brief notes on the events and activities of any given day, including meetings, classes, appointments, dinners, outings, and trips. In general, engagement diaries provide a sense of the range of artistic activities in which Marsh was involved, his interactions and associations with other artists, and the time he spent involved in teaching and other art-related endeavors. Of particular note, the “Little Red Book” diary from 1937 records Marsh’s work on the mural for the New York Customs House; the one from 1938 records his work on drawings for the book, Sister Carrie; and the one from 1943 records his trip to Brazil as an artist correspondent, which included a broken arm and time spent in hospital.

In 2006, Archives of American Art scanned the bulk of Marsh’s paper, including eight diary-like books, for the years 1912, 1913, 1916, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1932 and 1933, and images of all these are available online. But, as described in the finding aid, it is only the 1912 book that comes close to being a full journal, albeit an adolescent one, and one with many little sketches that already show a precocious talent. The 1912 journal has been fully digitised recently, and is now available online as a pdf. Here are a few extracts.

8 January 1912
‘At 2.30 in the afternoon I went back to school for a physical examination. I am 4 ft 9 1/2 inches high and weigh 82 1/2 lbs. It began to snow and it kept up all the afternoon maybe all night. I bought a hockey stick for 25¢ over at Ciccone’s and I burned my name on it. I got out my sled and hitched on the grocery and had a delivery ride for about 2 hours around town.’

10 January 1912
‘At 2:30 I skated down along the rode to Kingsland’s pond. It was slick as glass and as smooth as glass. I can skate better each time I go. After while quite a big bunch came after a while. The big fellows skated classy all going along hitching on to each other. Prattie came. He can’t skate because he has only skated a few times in his life. My subjects in school are Latin I Algebra I
English I Ancient History I.’

11 January  1912
‘Went coasting up in Nutley Park. All covered with ice. Jut and I went down on my sled. We went about 30 miles an hour. Later Merril Wright and I went over on Nutley Avenune. Starting up at the top the hill and going as far as the Passaic River, a distance of about of a mile. We coasted down there twice and it was great The Passaic r. is all frozen over. I guess it is skatable. After a while Don Blankhorn with his pop gun went up to Wright’s and played pool. Ice is all over the sidewalks and roads. Slippery as the dickens.’

20 January 1912
‘Some swift coasting now in Nutley Park. In the morning I coasted some but not much. In the afternoon Jut and I went over to the resevoir, about a mile from here to skate. It was swell. The weather was warm and the ice was perfect. I can skate better now. Jut bought a hockey stick and we skated up and down the pond played a little hockey and got sore and and sore backs. We skated all the way across the golf course.’

21 January 1912
‘I did’nt go to Sunday School this morning but in the afternoon Jut and I went skating over at the resevoir. It was slick and a big crowd was there skating and looking on. 5 Germans were there skating fancy in circles. A bunch of fellows would “snap the whip” in a long line hanging on to each other. Some boobs about 20 of them took hold of hands and skated along and snapped the whip. I skate better every time I go.’

23 February 1912
‘Jack Wilson came down because he had played hookey from school. We went down to the rain pond which had lowered five inches. It was covered with thin ice. Jack took a sled and coasted on it and went plunging into a hole and cut his hands badly then he ran out. On one part of the pond we walked on with safety when it got weak and awful pompey. Jack went in a lot of places up to his knees in water.’

11 March 1912
‘Back to school and out again. Went on my wheel up to Goodrich’s and was up in Will’s room with Will, Lloyd, and Winton when Jut sneaks me out without notice. We rode down back of the shooting club and got a bunch of pussy willows. We brought them home and then watched the kids playing marbles. I played Jerry and beat him a couple with Jut’s heavy steel ball bearing shooter I used.’

2 April 1912
‘Rainy day. I got a haircut. Nothing doing all the afternoon.’

5 April 1912
‘GOOD FRIDAY I went to New York this morning and bought two Norfolk suits at Rogers Peet. I bought a hat at Mcreery and a five store hunt. I reached home at 2.30 and changed my clothes. It was really hot. I met Jack Wilson and we went down at the brook. I caught a snake and bought 1/2 dozen hot cross buns. We went down to the brook and two little kids jumped in the quick mud. A few kids came around and meanwhile the little kids were jumping in the mud until it had reached their knees.’

26 June 1912
‘I forgot what I did today. There’s a bunch of great strawberries in the field which I partially ate. Lloyd’s painting his skiff lead color.’

29 July 1912
‘Bill came down and helped me a door blue. It rained a little and we went swimming off the float. It cleared up in the afternoon and so I went for a sail with four of the Goodrich’s in the “Aspenet” a sailboat not large. I don’t mean the hole family because there are only 7 without the relatives or ancestors. The Goodrich’s I went with ranged from about 17 to 23 years of age - all girls except Will who sailed the boat. We sailed out in the ocean 3 or 4 miles, got a soaking and when we came back we got stuck letting down the anchor.’

30 July 1912
‘I worked painting nearly all the morning painting things. Afterwards Bill & I went for a swim off the float and we took a swim around. Nothing special doing in the afternoon. Saw a fellow get hit with a rotten egg so he fell in the water and washed it off being in swimming.’

31 July 1912
‘I took an early morning plunge and worked nearly all of the morning. Bill came down and we took a swim off the float and afterwards watched the other kids go off. In the afternoon he and I went to the Commons and watched a ball game between the Little Comptons and the Y.M.C.A.C’s. Little Compton beat 4-3. Afterwards there were athletics out in front of the Methodist Church which was having a fair. There were about 30 kids from the Y.M.C.A.C camp in west port. They had 100 yd dash, high and broad jumping, shot put, potato races etc. Gosh whenever one of the country jakes wanted to make tell when to stop he would holler “Whoa, whoa” as if he were a horse. I guess it was so because they are used to driving them.’

20 August 1912
‘Had an exciting game of croquet. Ralph, Phillip Arnold & I stood Jack and Lloyd and we won. Gee it was great. Afterwards we all went swimming off the float.’

23 August 1912
‘Played part of a round of golf with Winton and did worse and better. Jack won the cup in the Junior tournament. I made a monkey out of a peach stone.

24 August 1912
‘Swim at Warren’s this morning and it was so rough that we couldn’t go off the rocks. I nearly climbed to the top of the water tower down by the pond while Lloyd & Bill were fishing. At 5:30 there was a driving match on the golf course to see who could drive the farthest. I saw it. Bill goes hunting for woodchucks and water birds. I went with him this morning.’

11 September 1912
‘Saw our new house building which we are going to move in soon. I went to the N.R.H.S. for the first day this morning. It is a fine big school and I took French I, Latin II (Caesar), plane geometry and English II. Thunder storm in afternoon.’

22 October 1912
‘Went to Loew’s theatre to-day and it’s allright. They had moving pictures and vaudeville. Gosh the acrobats were swelling fat with muscles and they bounded around like monkeys. They handled each other and themselves as if they only weighed 2 pounds each. 5¢ admission to the peanut gallery and 25¢ a box.’

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