Smoko, the Human Volcano

Reginald Marsh

Smoko. El volcán humano

Marsh, Reginald

París, 1898 - Dorset, 1954

Smoko. The Human Volcano, 1933

© Reginald Marsh, VEGAP, Madrid, 2015

Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Watercolor on masonite

91,4 x 122 cm


Artwork history

  • Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery, New York.

  • Mr.  and Mrs. Joel Harnett, New York.

  • Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York.

  • Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano, 1978.

  • Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.


The New York Painter: A Century of Teaching: Morse to Hofmann, New York, Marlborough - Gerson Gallery, p. 68.


Eastside-Westside, all around the town: A Retrospective of Paintings, Watercolors and Drawings by Reginald Marsh, Tucson (AZ), The University of Arizona, nº 25, p. 39.


Reginald Marsh: The Art of Popular Entertainment, New York, Vincent Aston Gallery- Public Library at Lincoln Center.


20th Century American Painting and Sculpture, New York (NY), Andrew Crispo Gallery.

1979 - 1980

America & Europe. A Century of Modern Masters from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia; Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia; Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria; Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Wellington, New Zealand, National Art Gallery; Auckland, Auckland City Art Gallery; Christchurch, Robert McDougall Art Gallery; Dunedin, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, nº 60, p. 78, 154-155.


Maestri Americani della Collezione Thyssen-Bornemisza, Vatican City, Musei Vaticani, nº 97.


Maestri Americani della Collezione Thyssen-Bornemisza, Lugano, Villa Malpensata, nº 95.

1984 - 1986

American Masters: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Baltimore (MD), The Baltimore Museum of Art; Detroit (MI), The Detroit Institute of Arts; Denver (CO), Denver Art Museum; San Antonio (TX), Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute; New York (NY), IBM Gallery of Arts and Sciences; San Diego (CA), San Diego Museum of Art; Palm Beach (FL), The Society of the Four Arts, nº 97, pp. 123-169.


Del post-impresionismo a las vanguardias. Pintura de comienzos del siglo XX en la Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Valencia, IVAM Centre Julio González, nº 37, pp. 122-124.

2005 - 2006

Mímesis. Realismos modernos 1918-1945, Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, nº 61, p. 266, illus. p. 160.

  • -Goodrich, Lloyd: Reginald Marsh. New York, 1972, p. 99, illus.

  • -America & Europe, a century of modern masters from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. [Exhib. Cat. Perth, Art Gallery of Western Australia – Christchurch, Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1979-80]. Sydney, Australian Gallery Directors Council, 1979, nº 60, pp. 78, 154-155, illus.

  • -Cohen, M.: Reginald Marsh’s New York: Painting, Drawing, Prints and Photographs. New York, 1983, pp. 8-12, 94, illus.

  • -Levin, Gail: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Twentieth-Century American Painting. London, Sotheby’s Publications, 1987, nº 69, pp. 212-214, illus.

  • -Del post-impresionismo a las vanguardias. Pintura de comienzos del siglo XX en la Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza, Valencia, IVAM Centre Julio González, [Exhib. Cat. IVAM Centre Julio González, Valencia], 2000, n. 37, pp. 122-124.

  • -Colección Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza. Arnaldo, Javier (ed.). 2 vols. Madrid, Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2004, vol. 2, p. 442, illus. p. 443 [Sheet by Gail Levin].

  • -Llorens, Tomàs: “Mímesis. Realismos modernos”. In Madrid 2005-2006, pp. 49-211, cit. p. 148.

  • -Llorens, Tomàs: Mímesis. Realismos modernos 1918-1945. Bozal, Valeriano. [Exhib. Cat. 2005-2006]. Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 2005.

Expert report

Reginald Marsh’s Smoko, The Human Volcano depicts Coney Island, the popular-priced Brooklyn beach resort and amusement park that attracted New York’s large urban populace during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Easily and inexpensively accessible by subway, Coney Island offered a welcome sea breeze to the masses confined in the city on a hot summer day. Marsh first went to the Brooklyn amusement park on assignment as an illustrator at the suggestion of Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair magazine.

Marsh loved the boisterous crowds and chaotic activity that he observed at Coney Island and so he began to make regular sketching trips there, finding constant inspiration for his paintings. He explained his response to Coney Island: “I’ve been going out there every summer, sometimes three or four days a week. On the first trip each summer I’m nauseated by the smell of stale food, but after that I get so I don’t notice it. I like to go there because of the sea, the open air, and the crowds-crowds of people in all directions, in all positions, without clothing, moving-like the compositions of Michelangelo and Rubens.” Around the time he painted this lively canvas, Marsh wrote to his wife Felicia, a landscape painter who spent her summers in Vermont, telling her of his most recent afternoon at the beach at Coney Island: “The wind was fresh and strong blowing great whitecaps in on the seas-the sea a rich blue-The crowd as thick as I’ve ever seen, much to my delight. The noise of the beach could be heard for miles and there was scarce room on the sand to sit down…”

Marsh made a sketch for Smoko, the Human Volcano on one of these jaunts to Coney Island. In the sketch, both the figure of Smoko and the woman wearing shorts standing just below are clearly visible. But Marsh also took photographs of his subject. He considered his photographs to be snapshots, a kind of visual note-taking, rather than as finished works of art. The photographs’ subjects are in the documentary tradition of his contemporaries Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans, but his use of his own photography to create paintings can be compared to Ben Shahn and Ralston Crawford.

Four of the photographs Marsh used for Smoko, the Human Volcano show that he faithfully recorded the publicity logo from the billboard of the sideshow: “[fa]tilist supreme” and “Smoko the human volcano: startling feats of fire eating.” To the left of Smoko’s billboard image, Marsh depicted a poster of a female fortune teller or psychic who points to her crystal ball with phrases like “tomorrow” emanating from it. Beneath her the caption reads; “x-ray your mind.” In the painting, Smoko, standing before his image on the billboard, is depicted performing his act, about to swallow fire. Wearing a wide print tie and orange suspenders, he dramatically throws his head back, about to insert the flaming torch. To the right of the female performer scantily clad with a bare midriff and shorts, Marsh painted another figure drawn from his photographs: an ill-proportioned female midget, wearing a headband in her hair, a bright red dress and lipstick. Marsh placed the spectator among the crowd, looking up at the performers.

Gail Levin