Treasures from the Vault: Martin Lewis

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

A tale as old as time, Australian-born artist Martin Lewis fled his small hometown for the Big Apple to make his career; however, he spun another tale backwards, profitable during his lifetime and forgotten in death, he would have celebrated his birthday tomorrow (Tuesday, June 14).

Born in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia, Lewis exhibited an early passion for drawing. He left home at 15 and made his way to Sydney, settling into a Bohemian community and publishing his drawings in a radical newspaper, The Bulletin. While in Sydney, he studied with Julian Ashton, the first Australian artist to take up printmaking. Lewis left Australia for America in 1900, landing in San Francisco and taking a job painting stage decorations for William McKinley’s presidential campaign (McKinley won). By 1909, Lewis made his way to New York, living and working as a commercial illustrator.

He continued to travel, however, inspired both by the Whistler prints he saw in England and Japan’s woodblock artists; from Whistler he took the focus of everyday history while from Japanese prints he borrowed the asymmetry and concern for pattern, both influences present in his etchings of NYC. The prints he produced from 1925 to 1935 are his most admired. In fact, his 1927 exhibition was so successful he gave up commercial work and concentrated wholly on printmaking; he was the first to sell out an edition of a print during an exhibition. The print from FWMoA’s collection, Subway Steps, epitomizes the subject and style with which Lewis found fame.

A black-and-white print of a young woman and girl ascending the subway steps to the right while, to their left, a young woman descends. Above them on the street men and women pass, clutching hats and skirts against an unseen wind. In the background, buildings stretch along 7th avenue.
Martin Lewis, American b. Australia, 1881-1962. Subway Steps. Etching and drypoint on paper, 1930. Gift of Patricia Adsit through the Arts United Renaissance Campaign, 1990.09. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Investigating the lightness and darkness of a black and white palette, Lewis created nuanced portrayals of New York City and its varied inhabitants in the ’30s. He masterfully balances the forceful realism of the Ashcan School (think George Bellows or John Sloan) with the asymmetry and softness of a Japanese print to evoke a black-and-white film showcasing the true city through small, fleeting moments.

In this print, we see a woman and young girl walking up the subway steps to the busy, littered streets of New York City while another young woman, a hand on the skirt of her dress to keep it from flying up in the hot, subway air, descends opposite them. Our eyes travel with the young woman and her charge, as their steps match each other, upward to the street. Above, women and men walk in all directions, their arms swinging, hands held to caps, and skirts billowing–all intended to underscore the quick tempo of city life. Much like a dance, in the weaving and bobbing through the crowd in the background, one can imagine the noise: the clatter of heels, chattering of passersby, car horns, cries of hawkers, and the myriad other sounds that make up a city. Lewis captures the everyday NYC: the energy, bustle, and occasional solitude of life in the big city. We can just make out the sign marking the street as 7th Avenue, though, to a non-native, the buildings are non-descript. Though perhaps unknown they are quintessentially New York: tall and scraping the sky as they descend into the background at an angle on both sides of the composition. It even appears that the building on the right, closest to the subway stop, is in the process of being built! Lewis isn’t toting out tourist New York; instead, his prints focus on those who, like him, call the city home.

How does his etching compare to New York City today? The Education team just returned from a quick trip to attend the Scholastic Affiliate Leadership Conference and celebrate our National Medalists so we took an updated photo of the subway steps. Though at a different angle, as we can’t see the street view, has much changed?

A black and white photograph of a girl walking up subway steps.
Subway Steps, 2022. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Ultimately, Lewis left the city briefly during the Great Depression for Newton, Connecticut, where he produced a number of rural, nighttime, and winter scenes in Sandy Hook before returning to the city and a market no longer interested in his work. He finished out his days teaching at the Arts Student League from 1944-1952 and died, largely forgotten, in 1962.

Today, he is recognized as one of, if not the, premier printmakers of the first half of the 20th century. Due to his small output, in his 30-year career he produced only 145 drypoints and etchings, he was lost amidst the more prolific artists. His earliest known etching, which dates to 1915, suggests he had worked in the medium well before that year due to the high level of skill. In fact, his talent caught the eye of Edward Hopper, to whom he taught the basics of etching and shared similar artistic visions. Producing etchings of his immediate environment, whether NYC or in Connecticut, Martin Lewis encompasses the idea of an artist painting, or in this case etching, what they know.

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