See study by L. Goodrich (1972).
Marsh did not really enjoy painting until the 1920s, when he began to study with other artists. By 1923 Marsh began to take painting more seriously. During his trip to Paris, he was able to see famous paintings at the Louvre and other museums, which fueled his excitement to paint. It was the first time Marsh had visited Paris since he had lived there as a child and he fell in love with what it had to offer him. Marsh was impressed by the 'old master' paintings he saw on a 1926 European trip. He returned with a desire to utilize the principles he felt were evident in the art of the Renaissance painters, particularly the practice of taking notes from observation of human subjects in their environments. Marsh then studied under Kenneth Hayes Miller, John Sloan and George Luks at the Art Students League of New York, and chose to do fewer commercial assignments.
Marsh had been influenced by the drawings of Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo since he was a child. His father’s studio was full of reproductions of the old masters work.While learning about the European Masters like (Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens) and being inspired by their work, Marsh met Thomas Hart Benton in one of the galleries in France. Benton, known today as a social realist, and regionalist painter at that time was also a great student of the Baroque masters. Marsh saw the resemblance between Tintoretto’s famous works and Benton’s and was soon motivated to try to do the same.
When Marsh returned to New York City in the late 1920s after meeting Benton and learning from the "masters," he began to study with Kenneth Hayes Miller. Miller was a well known painter at the time and was teaching at the Art Students League of New York. Miller instructed Marsh on the basics of form and design in his art. He encouraged Marsh to make himself known to the world. He looked at Marsh's early, awkward burlesque sketches and at his more conventional landscape watercolors and said, "These awkward things are your work. These are real. Stick to these things and don’t let anyone dissuade you!" By the beginning of the 1930s Marsh began to express himself fully in his art. As late as 1944 Marsh wrote, “I still show him every picture I paint. I am a Miller student."
Marsh began to work with John Steuart Curry who was another working artist at the time, after his training with Miller. Both Marsh and Curry took lessons from Jacques Maroger. Marsh met Maroger in New York City in 1940. Maroger, who was a former restorer at the Louvre, believed he had discovered the secrets of the "old masters" and was well known for his art work and significant contributions to his students. Maroger left behind lots of material documenting his work for Marsh and Curry to study. They adopted his ideas to get the same effect. Not only was Marsh influenced by the painters of the past, but also by what was right in front of him. Marsh especially loved capturing the heart of New York City in all its forms.
Marsh's etchings were his first work as an artist. In the early 1920s he began to work with watercolor and oil. He did not take to oil naturally and decided to stick to watercolor for the next decade. Yet, in 1929 he discovered egg tempera, which he found to be somewhat like watercolor but with more depth and body. Along with Marsh's paintings, he was also highly noted for his print's, first working in etching and lithography, and then moving on to ancient engravings in the 1940s. He kept careful watch of the technique he used for his prints. He noted the temperature of the room, the age of the bath that his plates were soaked in, the composition, and the length of time the plate was etched. When making prints of the etchings Marsh recorded how long the paper soaked for, the heating of the plate, and the nature of the ink used. Marsh enjoyed experimentation with all his artworks and was therefore renowned for his unique techniques.
During Marsh’s trip to Paris in 1926, he continued his burlesque sketches. He found his likeness of the striptease comedy at many cafes around the city while still being influenced by the old masters. By being inspired by the past but residing in the present "it was upon the Baroque masters that Marsh based his own human comedy."
Although Marsh was making money from his art, he still identified himself with the lower class members of society in the 1930s. Drawing people on the sidewalks and on street corners connected Marsh to the harsh reality of the life on the Bowery. Marsh simply believed that the lower class was more interesting to paint although he was not economically part of the lower class. In the 30s the hobo became a familiar figure in America because of the Great Depression that was sweeping the country. Marsh also painted other figures, such as the burlesque queens, the musclemen, and bathing beauties all of whom personified the 1930s for him. In 1930 Marsh was 32 years old living in New York, yet not starving as much of the country was because he had inherited his grandfathers money, besides having his own career.
In some of Marsh's Bowery sketches depicting bums on the streets of New York, there resembles what could be a Christ like figure collapsing. His burlesque women also resemble that of a classic Venus Pudica pose.
Marsh was also drawn to the ports of New York. He would sketch the seaports, focusing on the tugboats coming in and out of the harbor. He loved to include the details of the boats such as the masts, the bells, the sirens, and the deck chairs to capture the true reality of the vessels. In the 1930s the harbors were extremely busy with people and commerce due to the country’s necessity for economic recovery. The Great Depression brought about a decline in raw materials and therefore the demand for those materials grew dramatically. This caused the chaotic need for trade along with bustling harbors, in big cities such as New York.
Marsh was also obsessed with the American woman as a sexual and powerful figure. This obsession began with his involvement in movie scenes and burlesque theaters. In his work with movies he made sure to capture all different sides to the theater, the rich and the poor and the women as revelers and powerful. In the 1930s during the Great Depression more than 2 million women lost their jobs and during this time was when women were said to be exploited sexually. Marsh’s work shows this exploitation by portraying men and women in the same paintings. Because Marsh was a painter of bodies his paintings depicted women as half clothed, or fully naked, often big and strong. The men portrayed in Marsh’s paintings were portrayed as voyeurs, often watching the women. These paintings share a relationship with the old masters, by portraying the raw sexuality of women. They were often erotic, and populated with heroic-like images.
The painting Fourteenth Street at the Museum of Modern Art depicts Marsh's interest in women. It illustrates a large crowd in front of a theater hall, showing the clashing of classes and of gender in the 1930’s. It features a large community of people interacting but at the same time, it singles certain people out, showing the socio-economic disruption of society and class. The women in the painting are depicted as strong and purposeful with large bodies. Women are idealized in this work and they appear larger then the men. They appear untouchable and unattainable. While the women look active and powerful, the men look like drunk hobos and are portrayed much smaller. The woman walking under the ladder is a large looming strong figure, while the man beneath her walks by on crutches and is slumped over.
Marsh’s world is filled with display: movies, burlesque, the beach, and all forms of public exhibition. Men and women are both spectators and performers within a heavily sexualized world. And Marsh was clearly fascinated by both aspects of that world - almost always presenting its two sides in the same image.”