Reginald Marsh was born in Paris in 1898, but moved with his family to the United States as a young child. Marsh was the son of artists, and he displayed an aptitude for drawing at an early age. Marsh attended Yale University in 1916, and served as the art editor and cartoonist for the Yale Record. Marsh met and befriended many people at Yale who would later become friends and patrons of the artist, including William Benton, future Senator of Connecticut, and Henry Luce, the founder of Life magazine. After graduating, Marsh moved to New York to pursue a career in illustration. His work appeared in the Evening Post, the Herald, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1922, Marsh enrolled in The Art Students League of New York where he studied under John Sloan and later Kenneth Hayes Miller. In the same year, Marsh found a job sketching cartoon reviews of vaudeville and burlesque shows for the New York Daily News. His exposure to the seedy underbelly of New York entertainment would fuel his interest throughout his career. Marsh would roam the streets with a sketchbook in hand, gathering material for his reviews as well as his later paintings.
Marsh was an urban regionalist; he painted vivid portrayals of New York life, from taxi-dance halls, burlesque shows, elevated trains, back alleys and city streets. Marsh also documented contemporary urban life in landmarks such as Coney Island, the Bowery, and Times Square. New York was a newly commercialized metropolis in the 1930s and Marsh captured the city with immediacy and energy. Despite his modern subject matter, Marsh practiced techniques taken from the Old Masters. Marsh emphasized the importance of draftsmanship, and painted with watercolor and egg tempera. In addition to his cartoons and paintings, Marsh produced over 250 etchings and engravings.
In 1924, Marsh received his first solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club. Over three decades, Marsh exhibited his work widely and earned fifteen solo exhibitions at the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery in New York. During the 1930s, Marsh participated in the New Deal’s federal art programs, and painted murals in Washington DC and New York.
Taxi Dance Hall depicts a particular American institution that flourished in the early to mid-twentieth century. In dance halls like the scene painted by Marsh, young women called “taxi dancers” were hired by male patrons to dance, usually at the price of ten-cents for one song. Like other paintings of the same subject, such as Ten Cents a Dance, Marsh’s women are voluptuous and adorned in long, feminine evening gowns, overdone hair and red lipstick. The women are posed and painted like Renaissance models, with draped gowns accentuating their musculature and curves. The scene in the present work is composed mostly of women standing idly at the exit awaiting selection by the male customers. Marsh was attracted to colorful spectacles like taxi dance halls and burlesque shows for their tawdry, sex-centered entertainment that existed in isolated parts of the city.
The present work was originally in the collection of Senator William Benton, who befriended the artist when the two attended Yale University. Benton began collecting works by the artist in the 1930s, and he purchased half of Marsh’s estate after his death in 1954. In letters exchanged between the two friends, Benton, then the Assistant Secretary of State, urged Marsh to paint him another dance-hall picture in “full dress and full color.” When the painting was delivered to Benton in 1947, he was very satisfied and marveled to the artist that it hung in the “most important spot in my private office.”
Taxi Dance Hall, 1947
Watercolor and ink on paper
26 x 40 inches
Signed and dated lower right
Senator William Benton, acquired from the above on August 20, 1947
Charles Benton, son of the above by descent
The Charles Benton Trust