Reginald Marsh, 1898 -1954

Born in Paris to parents who were American artists, Reginald Marsh became an adept illustrator at an early age. His family returned to the United States in 1900. Upon graduating from Yale University, Marsh moved to New York and in 1922 took a job as an illustrator at the New York Daily News. For the paper he provided cartoons of vaudeville and burlesque shows. In 1925 Marsh went to work for a new magazine — The New Yorker — as one of its original cartoonists. That same year he married Betty Burroughs, daughter of the paintings curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later that year they traveled to Europe where Marsh discovered the work of the old masters at the Louvre in Paris. With a sketchbook always on hand, he wandered the streets of Paris and began depicting bums or what he called “figures of failure.” i Upon the couple’s return, Marsh, now with a serious interest in pursuing art, enrolled at the Art Students League where he studied under George Luks, John Sloan, and Kenneth Hayes Miller.

The Brooklyn Bridge, with its juxtaposition of majestic Gothic arches and high-tech steel cable suspension system, was considered the quintessential New York icon and became a popular subject for both painters and photographers. Since Marsh preferred to depict the poor and down-on-their-luck types he would not have been able to capture both the soaring arches of the bridge and the street life in the same work. His solution was to find a different bridge – the Manhattan Bridge – a second suspension bridge connecting lower Manhattan to Brooklyn that offered classical architecture at the street level.

Built between 1901 and 1909, the Manhattan Bridge has a grand Beaux-Arts entrance on the Manhattan side based on a triumphal arch in Paris. This elegant, colonnaded arch, along with the bridge’s two granite anchorages, were designed and built by the architecture team of Carrere and Hastings who are best known for having built the New York Public Library. In the classical architecture of the anchorage and the latticework patterning of the guard rail, Marsh located a similar juxtaposition of old and new in this bridge and used it as the setting for this painting.

In the High-Renaissance style with the horizontally-banded columns, simple geometric cornice, and plain arch, the architecture, which strove to imply a sense of solidity and permanence, serves as an ideal backdrop to the Depression-era scene that plays out before it. Three men are arranged diagonally into the composition from the slumped drunk in the front right to the elderly man standing at the railing at the left who gazes down toward the river. Flanked by the utter hopelessness of these figures strolls Mr. Broe, the only moving figure in this group. He, too, looks out at the river, but with his hand raised to his
chin he appears thoughtful; with the sun shining on him and a hint of color in his outfit, Mr. Broe might even be optimistic. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the grim statistics of unemployment that followed through the first few years of the new decade, signs of economic recovery first became apparent in 1934. By 1936 when this work was
executed, the economic situation continued to show signs of improvement.

Marsh painted Mr. Broe on the Manhattan Bridge in tempera, a water-based paint with an added emulsion that dries quickly but allows the artist to build up the surface of a painting with small strokes of thin layers of color. While painstaking, the result is a surface rich with the glaze of multiple colors, such as the hazy yellow/blue of the sky. The overall effect is dreamlike, a sharp contrast to the harsh reality of the scene he depicts.