Reginald Marsh's Ocean Liner Murals
One of the hidden gems of maritime New York is a series of eight frescos of ocean liners in the rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House. Located at Bowling Green in Manhattan, the Customs House is also the home of George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, It is also the site of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.
Prior to the ratification in 1913 of the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving the federal government the power to levy an income tax, most of the federal government's revenue came from customs duties. Thus, a customs house was an important place and nowhere more so than in the nation's busiest port. Furthermore, the existing customs house was inadequate to meet the needs of the customs service. Therefore, at the turn of the 20th century, the federal government authorized the construction of a new customs house in New York City.
After a competition, Cass Gilbert was selected as the architect. He would go on to design the Woolworth Building and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.
The United States was now recognized world power and public sentiment was very much in flaunting this status. Accordingly, Gilbert designed a Beaux Arts palace with Corinthian columns and temple-like steps leading up to the main entrance. Allegorical statues by Daniel Chester French sit by the entrance. Inside the building was no less elaborately decorated, including panels by the Tiffany Studio.
In the cavernous rotunda, Gilbert left space for 16 murals that would be some 50 feet above the floor. However, the cost of the elaborate building exceeded the amount the government had appropriated for its construction and so the 16 spaces were left empty when the building opened in 1907.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, the federal government launched a number of programs to combat the Great Depression. One of the areas of concern was the arts and a number of projects were undertaken to help artists. Perhaps the best known of these is the Works Project Administration's (WPA) hiring of artists to create murals in public buildings. A lesser known project was the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Under this program, the Treasury Department hired struggling artists to work as assistants to established artists in creating murals for select federal buildings.
The first TRAP project involved the new Post Office and Justice Department buildings in Washington. A committee of museum directors, artists and art experts was asked to select the established artists who would create the murals for these buildings. Eleven artists were selected including New York-based artist Reginald Marsh.
Marsh was born in Paris, France in 1900. His parents were American artists and they took him back to the United States early in his life. Interested in drawing from an early age, Marsh attended the Yale Art School and then became an illustrator doing work for the Daily News and a number of magazines including The New Yorker. During a trip to Europe in 1925, he studied the works of the Old Masters and decided to become a painter. Incorporating the techniques of the Old Masters into scenes of New York City, Marsh's social realism caught on and his work was often exhibited. He also was an instructor at the Art Student's League of New York.
For the first TRAP project, Marsh produced two murals both of which were for the Post Office building. One of these was of workers transferring mail from an ocean liner.
The next major TRAP project was to decorate the empty spaces left in the rotunda of the Customs House in New York. Marsh appears to have been the only artist considered for the project. The reason for this is not recorded but it could have been Marsh's close association with New York City. Armed with a sketch book and/or a camera, Marsh would prowl the streets of the city to find subjects for paintings that he would later develop in the studio. One of his favorite beats was the busy waterfront. Another factor that may have led to his selection for the Customs House project was that he had finished the murals for the first TRAP project ahead of schedule.
For the Customs House project, Marsh had eight assistants. Whereas painters traditionally have used assistants to paint backgrounds and lesser parts of a painting, Marsh used his assistants to collect information. Interested in accuracy, he would dispatch them out to capture details about the waterfront or a particular ship such as the lifeboats and davits. When the federal government reduced appropriations for art projects, Marsh volunteered to reduce his salary so that he received 90 cents an hour while his assistants received $1.60 an hour.
The 16 spaces in the rotunda included eight that were large enough to paint a scene alternating with eight narrower spaces. For the eight scenes, Marsh produced eight studies showing the steps an ocean liner progresses through when arriving in New York. The narrower spaces would be occupied by portraits of figures from the Age of Exploration. The artist made over 200 drawings and watercolors in preparation for painting the murals.
Despite the Treasury Department's objections about the cost, Marsh insisted that the murals be done as frescos. Cheaper alternatives would have been to paint canvases and then attach them to the walls or to paint directly on the existing plaster of the walls. However, Marsh felt that a better result could be achieved by following in the footsteps of the Old Masters and paint into new fresh plaster while it was still wet. Consequently, the existing plaster had to be removed before painting could begin. After obtaining special order from the President, Marsh and his assistants re-did the plaster work.
Not everything was done as in the Renaissance. Marsh projected his preliminary studies onto the empty spaces in the rotunda. He then traced the outlines onto the plaster.
The project involved two unusual challenges. First, the spaces where the murals were to be painted were some 50 feet above the floor. Specials scaffolding had to be created so that Marsh could paint much in the way depicted in the film 'The Agony and the Ecstasy “ Second, the walls of the rotunda were curved and so Marsh had to take that into account in rendering perspective.
For the scenes, Marsh selected three ocean liners: the United States Line's Washington; Cunard's Queen Mary and the French Line's Normandie. The studies were approved by the government. However, seven months into the project, Joseph P. Kennedy, then-chairman of the United States Maritime Commission, wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr., protesting the inclusion of two foreign-flag ship in U.S, government-sponsored murals. The murals should depict a U.S. superliner that Kennedy said was being planned.
Marsh refused to change the murals to include the fictional liner. The two-foreign-flag liners were icons of New York harbor in the 1930s, part of what made this a golden age for the port. Marsh was interested depicting New York harbor as it was, not in producing propaganda.
Morgenthau backed Marsh. Thus, Normandie and Queen Mary are featured in the murals. As a gesture to Kennedy, Marsh agreed to blur slightly the name Normandie in one of the murals but it is still legible even when viewed from the floor of the Customs House.
Along the same lines, the same mural shows five tugboats pushing the Normandie into her berth. The companies that owned the tugs can be identified by their funnels. The Tracy Towing Company complained that it had not been included. However, Marsh refused to add Tracy Towing because its tugs did not do this type of work.
Other scenes depicted in the murals include: Washington passing the Ambrose light ship; an ocean liner picking up the pilot; the Coast Guard cutter Calumet meeting the Washington; Customs officials boarding Washington through a shell door; Queen Mary passing the Statue of Liberty with the New York skyline in the background; a celebrity being interviewed by the press on the deck of the Queen Mary; and unloading cargo from an ocean liner, probably Normandie.
The project was completed in December 1937 and was well-received. All of the frescos are highly detailed, colorful and action-packed. Marsh clearly achieved his goal of “paint[ing] contemporary shipping with a rich and real power.”
Above: "Coast Guard Cutter Calumet Meeting the Washington."
Above: "Tugs Warping the Normandie Into Dock."
Above: "The Press Meeting A Celebrity"
Below: The Harbor, The Skyline and the Statue of Liberty" (sometimes called "Passing the Statue of Liberty." (Both photos Library of Congress, public domain).
Art article - Reginald Marsh's Ocean Liner Murals at the Customs House in New York City