Two men in the middle of a busy sidewalk struggle to support their fallen companion. The storefront signs place the scene between Pell and Doyers Streets on the Bowery, a major north−south thoroughfare running through the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Marsh studied the site carefully, as demonstrated by several drawings in various sketchbooks. One drawing, inscribed “Stand between No. 8 Mission & No. 10—3 feet from wall,” records the locale of Smokehounds [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Reginald Marsh, Stand between No. 8 Mission & No. 10—3 feet from wall, reproduced in Edward Laning, The Sketchbooks of Reginald Marsh (Greenwich, CT, 1973). A more developed one establishes the painting’s perspective [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Reginald Marsh, Study for Smokehounds, c. 1934, graphite and black chalk on off-white wove paper, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1962.273. © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © President and Fellows of Harvard College. Additional quick sketches [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Reginald Marsh, page from sketchbook no. 59, 11854, black chalk on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2017 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Reginald Marsh, page from sketchbook no. 59, 11854, black chalk on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. © 2017 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY record details of signage and architecture that relate both to Smokehounds and to another painting, Tattoo and Haircut [fig. 5] [fig. 5] Reginald Marsh, Tattoo and Haircut, 1932, egg tempera on Masonite, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earle Ludgin, 1947.39. © 2017 Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY, done earlier and set in the same location.
The title Smokehounds alludes to the intoxicated central characters. “Smoke” was slang for the cheap booze—all but guaranteed to “rot your guts”—available in Bowery saloons. So-called “smokehounds,” it was thought, would resort to drinking lighter fluid, if necessary. The association is reinforced visually by the men raising a flask, either midtoast or midquarrel, beneath the sign at right for the Lighthouse Bar and Grill.
The paint of Smokehounds—in colors of brown, ocher, and eggplant—is applied in multiple thin washes of egg tempera, the primary medium used for panel painting before about 1500. Marsh was interested in technical aspects of painting and had studied old master panels and canvases in the Musée du Louvre as well as in other major European collections. He learned the recipe for egg tempera, though, from his contemporaries Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889 - 1975) and Denys Wortman in 1929. Marsh’s emulation of the old master technique imparts to Smokehounds a muted and mottled appearance suggestive of a dingy, nocturnal scene lit obliquely by flickering artificial illumination from shop windows and incandescent signage.
A quasi-subterranean impression is created by the Third Avenue elevated train tracks that appear overhead. The sturdy I-beam that parallels the left edge of the painting compresses its already tight space, creating a claustrophobic effect. Marsh enhanced the painting’s compressed look in a drawing made to facilitate the painting’s translation into an etching; in the drawing, Marsh narrowed the image’s overall proportions by cropping the right edge [fig. 6] [fig. 6] Reginald Marsh, Study for Smokehounds, 1934, black ink over graphite on off-white wove paper, Harvard Art Museums / Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh. © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College. He further crowded the setting by inserting a fire hydrant in the left foreground, present in a preliminary study for the painting (see [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Reginald Marsh, Study for Smokehounds, c. 1934, graphite and black chalk on off-white wove paper, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Reginald Marsh, 1962.273. © Estate of Reginald Marsh / Art Students League, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. © President and Fellows of Harvard College) but absent from the painting itself. Marsh ultimately eliminated the hydrant from the print [fig. 7] [fig. 7] Reginald Marsh, Smokehounds, 1934–1935, etching, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Florian Carr Fund and Gift of the Print Research Foundation, 2008.115.215.
The Bowery neighborhood, sandwiched between Chinatown to the east and Little Italy to the west, was once a prosperous entertainment district. But following the Civil War the area attracted unemployed, injured, and bereft veterans, causing a gradual decline. By the 1930s the old theaters had been replaced by stale-beer dives, pawnshops, flophouses, brothels, and tattoo parlors-cum-barbershops that catered to the influx of poor transients. In an effort to counteract the influence of such establishments, rescue missions were founded along the street. The All Night Mission, whose sign is visible in Smokehounds, was set up in 1911 to provide safe haven and spiritual salvation. Dudley T. Upjohn, the mission’s founder, believed it was his duty to “bend every energy to win back to God Almighty” the “lost soul belonging to Christ” of each of the “thieves, gamblers, drunkards,” and drug addicts wandering the Bowery. He offered those in need a free evening meal, fresh water, and pews on which to sleep. The All Night Mission occupied No. 8 Bowery until it closed in 1948.
The centrality of the All Night Mission sign hints that Smokehounds transcends documentary illustration. The implication is reinforced by marked similarities between the foreground figural group and representations of Christ’s Entombment or Deposition, such as Titian’s The Entombment of Christ [fig. 8] [fig. 8] Titian, The Entombment of Christ, c. 1520, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Image: Stéphane Maréchalle. Located directly below the rescue mission’s glowing white cross, Marsh’s central figure is a proxy for the crucified Christ, supported by stand-ins for Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Marsh was explicit about his admiration for the old masters; his sketchbooks are filled with copies of paintings by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 - 1640), Michelangelo (Florentine, 1475 - 1564), Raphael (Marchigian, 1483 - 1520), and others [fig. 9] [fig. 9] Reginald Marsh, Sketches after Rubens, n.d., charcoal and brush and wash on paper, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Felicia Meyer Marsh Bequest 80.31.111, and the drawings in his own publication Anatomy for Artists (1945) are based on old master works [fig. 10] [fig. 10] Reginald Marsh, A free hand sketch from a photograph of Michelangelo’s marble of David, in Reginald Marsh, Anatomy for Artists (New York, 1945), 5, National Gallery of Art Library, David K. E. Bruce Fund.
Marsh’s admiration for the old masters and dedication to the mundane realities of the modern city were encapsulated in his advice to students: “Stare at Michelangelo [sculpture] casts. Go out into the street, stare at the people. Go into the subway. Stare at the people. Stare, stare, keep on staring.” Marsh’s exhortation justifies the interchangeability of biblical tropes and Bowery drunkards. This equivalence in Smokehounds underscores the gravity with which Marsh felt the disenfranchised deserved to be treated. Yet by translating Titian’s tragic masterpiece into a grotesque scene of public drunkenness, Marsh’s painting also bristles with satire. Where Titian’s dead Christ is lamented by the grief-stricken Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, whose moonlit faces show their agony, Marsh’s drama is witnessed by an apathetic spectator at left whose expression suggests that he has seen it all before. Marsh offers a subtle critique of a society unmoved by such nightly dramas.
Smokehounds might also question whether institutions like the All Night Mission represent an adequate solution for the Bowery’s problems at the time. Where, one wonders, will Marsh’s latter-day Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lead their fallen companion once they have him upright and figuratively, if not literally, resurrected? Will they heed the mission’s hovering, cruciform invitation, or will they be drawn instead to the nearby Lighthouse Bar and Grill’s irradiating beacon? Given the trio’s proximity to the latter, one suspects that the bar’s lure may well offer greater temptation than the mission’s promised salvation; a lighthouse, after all, is designed to guide vessels to safety.
August 17, 2018