REGINALD MARSH (1898–1954)
Cutter Approaching a Liner at Quarantine (Study for Rotunda Mural, U.S. Customs House, New York), 1937
Gouache on paper, 15 1/2 x 22 in.
Signed and dated (at lower right): 1937 / Reginald Marsh
EX COLL.: the artist; [Kennedy Galleries, New York, by 1971]; to private collection, New York, 1971 to the present
In 1936, Marsh was chosen for a much larger federal project: the mural decoration of the sixteen panels in the dome of the rotunda of architect Cass Gilbert’s splendid United States Customs House. These panels had remained empty since the construction of the building in 1902–07, victim at the time to budget overruns, compounded by the considerable logistic and aesthetic challenge of creating inspirational art for irregularly shaped concave surfaces soaring fifty feet above the marble floor. As with the Post Office murals, the Customs House commission was part of New Deal efforts to put American artists to work. Designated the master artist, Marsh was once again exempt from income restrictions. He was responsible for the entire program, with a budget that allowed him to hire financially needy assistants, funded by the Treasury Relief Art Project. For these he turned to eligible artists recruited from among his students at the New York Art Students League. Marsh was ecstatic about this commission. He wrote to Olin Dows, the chief of the Treasury Art Relief Program that “It is almost superfluous to say that I feel very, very proud that the honor to paint these walls has fallen to me. Here is a chance to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power, neither like the story telling or propagandist painting which everybody does. I have in the past painted dozens of watercolors around N.Y. harbor, and would like to get at it with some of this knowledge.”
Eight of the spaces in the dome are vertical rectangles with arched tops. Above these Marsh had inherited, in situ, plaster tablets with the names in raised letters of explorers associated with “New World” voyages, including Hudson, Columbus, and Verrazano. He filled these spaces with grisaille trompe l’oeil paintings of portrait statues representing the named figures. The larger surfaces presented Marsh with the opportunity to create his own scheme. He turned to a theme that had been an enduring fascination and recurrent subject—the vibrant commercial life of the waters of New York harbor. Marsh devised a series of images that narrated the arrival of a grand liner into New York harbor, from its entry at the Ambrose Lightship, through the docking and then unloading of its cargo. Marsh divided the process into eight segments: “the ship passing Ambrose Lighthouse; taking on a pilot; being met by a coast guard cutter; being boarded by officials; passing the Statue of Liberty; on deck, the press receiving a female celebrity . . ; tugs warping the ship into dock; and finally, discharge of cargo at the pier."
Notwithstanding his considerable familiarity with his chosen subject, Marsh meticulously prepared for his paintings. He requested and received permission to visit the Ambrose Lightship, to travel with pilot boats and coastguard cutters and to board the ocean liners he planned to include. The present work is a study for the panel that Goodrich calls “being met by a coast guard cutter.” Other sources suggest that the cutter is approaching the liner as it sits in quarantine, likely in The Narrows, as the name suggests, a narrow body of water between Brooklyn and the community of Rosebank on northeast Staten Island. (Today the stretch is spanned by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, named for one of Marsh’s eight explorers.)
Though the present watercolor does not indicate the names of the vessels involved, the final mural in the Customs Building clearly indicates that the Coast Guard vessel is the Calumet and the liner is the S.S. Washington. The Calumet was a tugboat-style vessel built in 1934 at the Charleston Naval Shipyard in Charleston, South Carolina. It was the prototype for a more modern coast guard vessel that was both larger and stronger than previous models.