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Adam Greenhalgh, “Reginald Marsh/Smokehounds/1934,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/178011 (accessed February 16, 2019).

 

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Overview

Reginald Marsh’s Smokehounds depicts a squalid evening scene in the Bowery, a lower Manhattan neighborhood that was home to many of the city’s poorest residents in the early 20th century. Two men struggle to support their fallen companion in the middle of a busy sidewalk beneath the Third Avenue elevated train tracks. The prostrate man and his cohorts are in various stages of intoxication caused by drinking cheap alcohol popularly called “smoke,” making them the “smokehounds” of the painting’s title. Whether the central figure’s compatriots will lead him to the All Night Mission, founded in 1911 to provide safe overnight haven and spiritual salvation to Bowery transients, or the nearby Lighthouse Bar and Grill is unknown. As such, Marsh’s painting appears to raise critical questions about the efficacy of the missions.

Reginald Marsh was drawn to New York City’s spectacles: the bawdy titillation of burlesque halls, the sensual exhibitionism of Coney Island’s beaches, the gaudy glitz of Manhattan’s entertainment districts, and the motley crowds on the subway. The artist also loved to draw and paint the city’s drunk, destitute, and downtrodden characters, such as those he portrayed in Smokehounds. Rich in the documentary detail to which he dedicated himself throughout his career, the painting also reveals Marsh’s reverence for the techniques of the old masters. Marsh achieved the appropriately muted and mottled appearance of the dingy, nocturnal scene—lit obliquely by flickering artificial illumination from shop windows and incandescent signage—by using egg tempera, emulating the old masters he so admired.

Entry

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.[1] 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]. A more developed one establishes the painting’s perspective [fig. 2]. Additional quick sketches [fig. 3] [fig. 4] record details of signage and architecture that relate both to Smokehounds and to another painting, Tattoo and Haircut [fig. 5], 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.[2] 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.[3] 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]. 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]) but absent from the painting itself. Marsh ultimately eliminated the hydrant from the print [fig. 7].[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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].[8] 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], and the drawings in his own publication Anatomy for Artists (1945) are based on old master works [fig. 10].

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.”[9] 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.[10]

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.

Adam Greenhalgh

August 17, 2018

Inscription

lower right: Reginald Marsh 1934

Provenance

The artist [1898-1954]; by inheritance 1954 to the artist's second wife and widow, Felicia Meyer Marsh [1912-1978]; gift 1958 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1936
First Annual Exhibition of the Work of Yale Professional Artists, Yale Club of New York, 17 March-13 April 1936, no. 3.
1963
American Traditionalists of the 20th Century, Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts, Georgia, 1963, no. 99.
1963
Progress of an American Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1963, unpublished checklist
1966
Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
1976
Corcoran [The American Genius], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, no checklist.
1980
La Pintura de los Estados Unidos de Museos de la Ciudad de Washington, Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1980-1981, no. 56, as Borrochines.
1981
Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1981-1983, no.48.
2004
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, NY; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no.90.
2008
The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
2013
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Bibliography
1936
Brewer, Ann. "The Art of University Men: Painting and Sculpture at the Yale Club." Art News 34, no. 26 (28 March 1936): 7.
1959
The Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin. 10, no. 3 (June 1959): 7 repro.
1972
Goodrich, Lloyd. Reginald Marsh. New York, 1972: 74 repro.
1973
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 153, 154 repro.
1975
Getlein, Frank. "Bill Corcoran's Collection IS America." Art Gallery 18,4 (January 1975): 21.
1976
Sasowsky, Norman. The Prints of Reginald Marsh. New York, 1976: no. 197.
1983
Brown, Milton W. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting from Public Collections in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., 1983: 162, 163, repro.
1986
Cohen, Marilyn Ann. "Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1986: 132 repro.
1999
Ursini, James, and Alain Silver. The Noir Style. New York, 1999: 22 repro.
2000
Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 160, 200 repro.
2003
Ellis, James Walter. "The Fourteenth Street School." Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 2003: 133.
2005
Higginbotham, Carmenita D. "Saturday Night and the Savoy: Blackness and the Urban Spectacle in the Art of Reginald Marsh." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2005: 240, 245, 247, 252, 368, repro.
2011
Greenhalgh, Adam. "Reginald Marsh, Smoke Hounds." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 244-245, 282, repro.
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