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Cheap Thrills: Coney Island during the Great Depression

Reginald Marsh's 1936 painting, "Wooden Horses," captures the lively atmosphere of Coney Island's Steeplechase Park during the Great Depression. The painting showcases a mix of classes, races, and genders enjoying leisure activities. Marsh's use of tempera paint and vibrant colors brings the scene to life, highlighting the thrill of the amusement park ride and the objectification of women in the entertainment culture of the time. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(light music) - [Man] We're in the Wadsworth Atheneum looking at a painting by Reginald Marsh. This dates to 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression. - [Woman] Reginald Marsh's Wooden Horses is set in Coney Island's Steeplechase Park at a time when Coney Island was known as the Nickel Empire, when a nickel could give you a subway ride to the longest boardwalk in the world, a Nathan's hot dog, or enjoying some of the amusements, such as the racing derby we see before us. - [Man] Coney Island had started out as a reserve for wealthy people who wanted to go to the sea shore, but by the 1930s, it was this amazingly permissive place where all classes mixed. - [Woman] Coney Island was a place where you could mix with different races, classes, and even genders. We have a older gentlemen clutching a younger woman. - [Man] An unusually intimate display in a public place. - [Woman] These emerging leisure activities, often for cheap thrills, dance halls, strip tease performances, and the attractions at Coney Island where you could escape from the anxiety caused by the Great Depression. In this Amusement Park Ride, women are objectified and the source of entertainment, particularly the woman in the center of the painting. He did have a knack for depicting women, some of whom were inspired by buxom blondes that you could see on the movie screens. Part of this new, pleasure-seeking culture where men would pay to see women perform. - [Man] We see voyeurism here in Coney Island where the sexualized observation of women was so much a part of the exhibits. - [Woman] Some of these women worked day jobs and then continued to earn their own living working at night in dance halls and in this scene, we have blonde women with these red lips that were known as Marsh types. It is a little bit uncomfortable to modernize that you have an older gentleman riding so closely to what may have been a complete stranger, whose hemline is somewhat risque. - [Man] I think most people are probably not familiar with a steeplechase. This is a little different from a merry-go-round, from a carousel, here, the horses are not going around a central point, they're actually on a track that is moving around the entire amusement area. - [Woman] This scene is set within one of the many gated amusement parks at Coney Island, Steeplechase Park. The beams you see in the upper right corner are part of the Pavilion of Fun, so you do have what was, at the time, a large area in which a crowd could gather, but Marsh pushes us right up close to the action. - [Man] That's an important reminder. These were not rides for children. These were rides for adults. - [Woman] This was meant to imitate actual horse races. There were four horses across. Each horse was controlled by a cable underneath, so riders were unaware that they didn't actually have control over who won and so you have these individuals who are anxious and excited, thinking that they can rear their horse ahead of the next person. - [Man] But like the title reminds us, these are carved, wooden horses. - [Woman] Many of them were carved by immigrants, and, over time, these craftsmen tried to outdo one another and so you would see carved exotic animals, like camels and giraffes. - [Man] This is not oil paint as we might expect. It's tempera. Marsh liked the fact that tempera dried very quickly and this allowed him to have defined lines remain and one of the reasons, I think, that this painting looks so active is that it's made up of all these little hatchings and lines that really activate the surface. - [Woman] It was something of a more transparent medium where the underdrawing, or the initial composition, was something he laid down first and then he painted over it. So this looser, gestural brushwork helps convey the dizzying speed of this mechanical ride and he highlights the figures, the horses using primary colors, blue and red. - [Man] And the blue and the red sit uneasily on the surface of the canvas and create an image that feels like it's vibrating. It feels as if the horse on the left is coming right at us. - [Woman] It feels as if this entire scene is going to spin out of control at any moment and that is, in large part, due to Marsh's brushwork and the way this beautiful blue outlining sits on top of the painting. - [Man] This is an artist who focuses on the streets, on the activities of the working class in New York, in the 1930s. - [Woman] Marsh is part of a documentary impulse in the 1930s. Artists, even photographers, were interested in capturing life realistically. Someone like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, many of these documentarians were in rural areas, but for Marsh, it was the urban scene that really inspired him. This painting makes it easy to realize why Reginald Marsh said the best show is the people themselves. (light music)