During the 1930s, the nation fell into the worst economic condition ever faced. What began as a recession soon plummeted when Wall Street crashed on October 29, 1929. The effects of the declining economy were felt everywhere and marked a decade of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, plunging farm incomes, and lost opportunities for economic growth and personal advancement. Some of the greatest artistic depictions of this turbulent time period were Reginald Marsh’s paintings.
Known for his prolific socio-political artworks, Marsh is known to be one of the best chroniclers of the 1930s and 40s New York. His numerous depictions of soldiers, burlesque dancers, African Americans, movie-goers, and other flamboyant characters are stylized in a uniquely explicit and grotesque manner. He brought back the Realist painting style in a time where Surrealism and Art Deco still lingered in the art world.
Born in 1898 in Paris to American parents, Marsh showed a high aptitude for drawing at a young age. He attended Yale and after graduating, moved to New York where he quickly became a successful illustrator and political cartoonist. In 1925, he traveled to Paris and his interest in painting grew. He studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and learned to focus on the techniques of the Renaissance Old Masters. In his painting titled Twenty Cent Movie, the effect of the Great Depression on Hollywood can be discerned.
The statistics of unemployment reached a record high in 1933; twenty five percent of the country was out of work. Despite this, 60-70 million Americans still packed the movie theaters each week. What brought about this phenomenon? To explain this, one would have to understand the mindset of Americans during this time. The economic downfall stole the hope and aspirations of a nation. What better way to escape the grim reality of their lives then to spend a couple of hours watching a movie? From gangster films to musicals to screwball comedies, Depression films took on the role of reinstating values such as individualism, classlessness, and progress.
The backdrop for Twenty Cent Movie was inspired by extensive drawings of the façade and signage of the Lyrics Theater in Times Square. The stage is set for the figures outside. You have the women dressed very bourgeois, the stern gangster fellow smoking, and the African American worker. The characters represent the longing felt by a majority of Americans during the Great Depression. The title even refers to the drop in prices of movies from 30 cents to 20 due to the film industry’s financial turmoil. The bright colors used for the composition contrast with the grim state of the nation at the time. Marsh is also known to be one of the first artists to feature advertisements in his paintings. Currently, the New York Historical Society is offering an inclusive exhibition called Swing Life from June 21, 2013 – September 01, 2013, which has many of Marsh’s paintings, illustrations, and photographs.