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.
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.
The address No. 8 Bowery, featured prominently in Smokehounds, is approximately one block north of Chatham Square, which marks the southern terminus of the Bowery.
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.
“Talk of the Town: Transients,” New Yorker, Apr. 20, 1940, 15. Irving L. Allen, The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech (New York, 1993), 152.
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
See Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, “Old Master Recipes in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s: Curry, Marsh, Doerner, and Maroger,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 4, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 21–42.
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
Norman Sasowsky, The Prints of Reginald Marsh (New York, 1976), 197.
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.
The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York (1939; New York, 1982), 119–120.
Dudley T. Upjohn, “An Unique But Practical Rescue Mission: New York Churchmen Establish a Mission of Help on the Bowery for the Many Unfortunates in that Great City,” St. Andrew’s Cross 25, no. 11 (Aug. 1911): 18.
“Chinatown’s Only All-Night Mission Closed; Founder Died Recently after Car Hit Him,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 1948, 25.
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
Marilyn Ann Cohen, “Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of His Art” (PhD diss., New York University, 1986), 132.
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.”
Reginald Marsh, “Let’s Get Back to Painting,” Magazine of Art 37 (Dec. 1944): 296.
On Marsh as satirist, see Richard N. Masteller, “Caricatures in Crisis: The Satiric Vision of Reginald Marsh and John Dos Passos,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3, no. 2 (Spring 1989): 23–45.
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
lower right: Reginald Marsh 1934
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.
- First Annual Exhibition of the Work of Yale Professional Artists, Yale Club of New York, 17 March-13 April 1936, no. 3.
- American Traditionalists of the 20th Century, Columbus Museum of Arts and Crafts, Georgia, 1963, no. 99.
- Progress of an American Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1963, unpublished checklist
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- Corcoran [The American Genius], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, no checklist.
- 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.
- 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.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
- 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.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
The painting was executed on a 1/8-inch-thick piece of Masonite-like hardboard, which is somewhat softer than modern Masonite. The original support was attached with a lead-white adhesive to a fabric, which was then stretched over a second piece of Masonite-like hardboard and tacked to a nonoriginal six-member, mortise-and-tenon stretcher. The original support was prepared with a thick white gesso-like ground. The artist added texture by applying paint in dabs and, in some places, by what appears to be scoring. The paint layer, probably egg tempera although it has not been analyzed, is built up in many layers of small brushstrokes to create a convoluted texture. Much of the modeling of form was done with thinner layers of paint, in some cases very thin washes, which pick up the texture from the underlayers. Most of the colors are quite thin and muted, except for the shop sign at the upper right, where opaque yellow paint has been applied over a bright blue underlayer. No artist’s changes are visible. The painting has been covered with a thick, semimatte natural resin varnish that was probably Marsh’s original varnish. He often coated his paintings with complicated sequences of natural resin varnishes, sometimes interlayered with egg or wax.
Marsh’s paintings are often considered to have darkened over time, partly because of his egg medium and partly because his thick varnishes, which are often impossible to remove safely, have turned darker and more yellow. Deep gouges in the painting in the upper and lower right have been crudely repaired with translucent smears of overpaint; the character of the paint and the amateurish nature of the repairs hint that they could have been done by the artist rather than by a professional conservator.
- Brewer, Ann. "The Art of University Men: Painting and Sculpture at the Yale Club." Art News 34, no. 26 (28 March 1936): 7.
- The Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin. 10, no. 3 (June 1959): 7 repro.
- Goodrich, Lloyd. Reginald Marsh. New York, 1972: 74 repro.
- 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.
- Getlein, Frank. "Bill Corcoran's Collection IS America." Art Gallery 18,4 (January 1975): 21.
- Sasowsky, Norman. The Prints of Reginald Marsh. New York, 1976: no. 197.
- Brown, Milton W. One Hundred Masterpieces of American Painting from Public Collections in Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., 1983: 162, 163, repro.
- Cohen, Marilyn Ann. "Reginald Marsh: An Interpretation of his Art." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1986: 132 repro.
- Ursini, James, and Alain Silver. The Noir Style. New York, 1999: 22 repro.
- Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 160, 200 repro.
- Ellis, James Walter. "The Fourteenth Street School." Ph.D. dissertation, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 2003: 133.
- 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.
- 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.