Egg tempera, gouache, and watercolor on paper
27 1/4 x 40 3/4 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Bequest of Felicia Meyer Marsh
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
Though the settings change, the subject of Reginald Marsh’s art is nearly always the people of New York City. Whether at the beach or an amusement park, on a subway platform or in the tenement districts, Marsh loved to paint the milling crowds that filled every borough of the thriving metropolis. Marsh would wander the streets of the city in search of engaging vignettes and was never without paper and ink to capture a quick impression. He also set up a telescope in his studio so he could observe the people below and immediately record their images. Marsh worked rapidly to seize the vitality of the city’s inhabitants, in small sketches that served as studies for full-sized etchings, drawings and paintings.
During the early part of his career, Marsh worked as an illustrator for a number of New York newspapers and magazines. From 1922 to 1925, he produced a daily cartoon review of vaudeville and burlesque shows for the New York Daily News. To prepare these reviews, Marsh attended the shows and sketched the performances. His drawings were published in the newspaper along with ratings of the acts.1 Marsh continued to haunt vaudeville and burlesque theaters for the rest of his life, and depicted them often in his art. Red Curtain, which pictures a burlesque dancer performing on stage, is a typical example.
Marsh’s teacher, Kenneth Hayes Miller, once told him: “You are a painter of the body. Sex is your theme.”2 Sex is indisputably the theme of Red Curtain. The dancer on the stage, with her curvy form, ample bosom and pale flesh, embodies Marsh’s ideal of feminine allure. Because Marsh very rarely engaged nude models to pose for him in his studio, this woman could well have been a dancer he observed at an actual burlesque theater. But he has transformed her into a ripe, fleshy figure in the style of Rubens, whom Marsh cited as an influence, and her powerful physical presence dominates the composition.
The dancer’s blond hair and faded blue and red veils stand in visual contrast to the bold primary coloring of the curtain, column, and architecture above the crowd. The crowd itself is painted in neutral hues, but the faces of the men in the audience do register a colorful variety of responses to the show. Some are obviously excited by the spectacle and gaze lustfully at the buxom dancer on the stage. One young man blatantly gapes at her, evidently having never seen or imagined such sights. Others stare at the floor in apparent boredom. As a group, these men represent the variety of types who regularly visited the dance halls. But Marsh draws each of them with distinctive facial features and a unique expression, and, given the artist’s proclivity for sketching people in public, it is not unreasonable to assume that these are caricature portraits of men actually present at one of the theaters Marsh himself frequented.
1. Marilyn Cohen, Reginald Marsh’s New York: Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Photographs (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983), 3.
2. Quoted in Reginald Marsh, “Kenneth Hayes Miller,” Magazine of Art 45 (April 1952): 171.