Third Avenue El

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Third Avenue El

United States, 1931
Drawings; watercolors
Egg tempera, watercolor, and ink on paper backed by canvas and Masonite
Frame: 32 3/4 × 44 7/8 × 3 1/2 in. (83.19 × 113.98 × 8.89 cm)
Gift of the American Art Council, Mr. and Mrs. Alan D. Levy, Mr. and Mrs. Willard G. Clark, Mr. and Mrs. Will Richeson, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. William D. Witherspoon, and Mr. and Mrs. J. Douglas Pardee (M.82.146)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Fascinated by the activity of city life, Marsh set much of his work in buses, subways, trains, and stations....
Fascinated by the activity of city life, Marsh set much of his work in buses, subways, trains, and stations. Third Avenue El illustrates the crowded conditions of the New York elevated trains but does not give a sense of the extreme congestion often experienced by the daily passenger. This is somewhat surprising since Marsh delighted in the hustle and bustle of urban crowds, but his depictions of buses and trains lack the raucous quality of his other New York images. They are quieter and more serious. By focusing on a few figures and presenting them as physically and psychologically separated-as in Second Avenue El, 1929 (formerly Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, New York), and Why Not Use the "L"? 1930 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) -- he demonstrated how those who live in a large, crowded city could feel alone. Although the passengers in Third Avenue El sit close together, they remain isolated from each other. The obvious source of Marsh’s painting is Third Class Carriage, c. 1860-70 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), by Honoré Daumier (1808-1879), a work that he could have known through any one of several painted and lithographed versions or through reproductions, which were numerous. Marsh not only borrowed the composition of this well-known image, he shared the French master’s appreciation of the dignity and worth of working-class people. Each passenger is a large, statuesque figure with a monumental presence. Marsh painted Third Avenue El in his characteristic, thin tempera wash, drawing in many details, such as the facial features and fur collars and cuffs. Deep colors, transparent washes, opaque passages, and drawing describe the solid forms. Based on various inscriptions in more than one hand on the stretcher, the museum’s painting has been dated to both 1930 and 1931 and at times referred to as Second Avenue El. According to the artist’s own detailed records in his notebook however, this painting was created during January 1931 and titled Third Avenue El. A number of drawings and an etching are related to the painting. Drawing was essential to Marsh’s art, and he felt that the print medium aided the development of his painting. The related print was probably created after the painting. Art historian Norman Sasowsky dates the etching to 1930, but according to records the artist kept of the states of his etchings, he first executed states of the print sometime between January and March 1931. Marsh made a major change in the print, substituting a black man for the white woman in the center foreground. Marsh had included blacks in the painted scene, as two female figures in the near background. Perhaps by giving a black a more prominent position in the print, the most important position in fact, Marsh felt he was updating Daumier’s image. It is not clear when in the evolution of the related images Marsh changed the figure from a woman to a man. The female figure in the painting has a masculine appearance despite her fox-trimmed coat and handbag. Such ambiguity of gender is present in a number of related drawings. Marsh carried a sketch pad wherever he went, and in several drawings there are jottings of figure groupings and scenes similar to the painting Third Avenue El. Despite the sketchy nature of the drawings, in one in sketchbook 130 (Archiv. Am. Art, Reginald Marsh Papers, microfilm roll NRM8, fr. 583) Marsh so reworked the head of the center figure that its sex cannot be conclusively determined.
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About The Era

The early twentieth century witnessed the transformation of the United States into a modern industrialized society and an international political power.

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The early twentieth century witnessed the transformation of the United States into a modern industrialized society and an international political power. By 1920 more than half of the country’s population lived in urban areas. Seeming to guarantee employment, the cities lured many farmers and African Americans from rural areas. In addition, between 1900 and 1920, 14.5 million immigrants from Europe, Russia, Mexico, and Asia settled here, primarily in urban centers. A new energy was channeled to such cities as New York and Chicago, as massive skyscrapers were erected to furnish much-needed office space and living quarters. Even West Coast cities were affected—the population of Los Angeles tripled between 1900 and 1910; its unplanned urban sprawl and dizzying speed were captured in the zany movies of the Keystone Cops, filmed on the streets of the city.


Art reflected these changing social and economic dynamics. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were still popular. Yet other, more progressive ideas now challenged artists. A strong new commitment to realism emerged in literature and the fine arts.


In Philadelphia and New York, a group of artists centered around Robert Henri captured the vitality of urban American life. These realists depicted the hustle and bustle of city streets, the common pleasures of restaurants and various forms of entertainment. Critics dubbed these realists the “Ash Can School” because of their treatment of unidealized subject matter previously considered unattractive. These artists focused on the inhabitants of cities rather than the cities themselves. Their interest in people also led them to create a significant number of single-figure paintings, conveying the human side of the new America . During the 1910s and 1920s the realist celebration of America spread throughout the country, as artists recorded the neighborhoods and people that made their own cities distinct.

 
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Kim, Woollin, Jinmyung Kim, and Songhyuk Yang, eds. Art Across America. Seoul: National Museum of Korea, 2013.
  • Miller, Angela, and Chris McAuliffe, eds. America: Painting a Nation. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013.
  • About the Era.
  • Kim, Woollin, Jinmyung Kim, and Songhyuk Yang, eds. Art Across America. Seoul: National Museum of Korea, 2013.
  • Miller, Angela, and Chris McAuliffe, eds. America: Painting a Nation. Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2013.
  • Phil Freshman.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art Report, July 1, 1981-June 30, 1983.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1984.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1991.
  • LACMA: Obras Maestras 1750-1950: Pintura Estadounidense Del Museo De Arte Del Condado De Los Angeles. Mexico, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 2006.
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