To Illuminate a Nocturne: The Life and Work of Martin Lewis
by DC Pae
Arriving in New York, a young man of 19 in 1900, an immigrant from Castlemaine in the state of Victoria, Australia, the city became the setting for many of his bestselling and collected etchings; the lungs of the city, a living breathing entity in its own right, was to play a conspicuous central role in the story of his work, a study to which I shall later return.
His position in the far from avant-garde world of printmaking masked adventurous beginnings in the life of an artist who seemed unaffected by the hedonism often indulged by his profession, and of the wider artistic cohort. Leaving home at the tender age of 15, Lewis embarked on a journey of fortune; that he might escape the drudgery of rural life in Victoria and find opportunity in foreign territory. This mission would see him traverse the continents toward a burgeoning & progressive America, where he and his newfound need for self-expression might flourish. As yet he had not ventured upon the discipline of lithography but was to find his gift in its practice, a ticket to fame but not legend as time would concede.
He initially ventured through The Outback, on to New Zealand before returning to Australia and Sydney as an outpost. Here he resided from 1898-1900. However, such relative familiarity would not hold his attention for long and he soon spread his wings with the New World within his sights. He made landfall in San Francisco where he found work painting campaign decorations for William McKinley’s 1900 presidential bid. Little is known of his life during this period, though he is known to have spent time in Chicago, but with the bright lights of Manhattan in his mind’s eye, metropolis beckoning with crooked finger, he heeded the city’s siren call. It was to prove the life-blood of his career, a shot in the arm for the artist; his muse.
Lewis made his home in New York and for the next decade found work as a commercial artist. Wanderlust never far from his mind, he was further educated by a brief sojourn to England in 1910 during which he was exposed to the work of Whistler & Haden, the former with whom he would be praised in future clubs & collections. It was here that he formed a relationship with concert singer and pianist Esta Verez, returning to New York City as a couple.
In these early years, Lewis’s commercial work provided the opportunity to meet many of his up-and-coming peer group; he formed many enduring friendships, among these artists was Edward Hopper. In 1915, Lewis took up the practise of printmaking, embracing the etching press as his principal form of expression, due to his soaring success in the field. In fact, so admired were Lewis’s etching techniques and emergent skills during this period, that Hopper asked that he might study alongside him and Lewis thereafter became his mentor in the discipline. Hopper even cited his apprenticeship with the printmaker as inspiration for his later painting, the consolidation of his individual style.
Lewis was recognised for his keen attention to detail, excelling with technical brilliance, especially with relation to his drypoint pieces, and insistence upon rigorous adherence to stringent technique; that all detail must be produced from etching directly on to the plate, rather than manipulated afterward through inking treatments. This, he saw as laziness and a shortcut, a corruption of the fine art. He produced prints of such intricacy so as to be exhibited in numerous group shows during the 1920s and early 30s, at a time when printmaking was undergoing something of a renaissance, and when Lewis became involved with influential artists and thinkers of the period, in the group of writers and intellectuals surrounding Lola Ridge.
A longer stay in Japan in 1920 and 1921 was heralded by the demise of Lewis’s relationship with Verez, but served to imbue his later work with new and dynamic qualities that both complimented and developed his style. For this departure afforded time and proximity to examine Japanese print and painting in watercolour and oil, adding an element of expressionism to his oeuvre, in contrast to the relative realism of his etching. Developing style and substance, especially with regard to nature, light and dark, and fluctuating atmospheric conditions (the study of the weather and seasons), all of which would later inform his depiction of urban New York cityscapes and add to the aesthetic canon of what came to be known as ‘The American Scene’.
The American Scene did not appear spontaneously or in isolation, but emerged as a contemporary movement following ‘The Ashcan School’, to which Lewis has often been compared owing to his exploration of pictorial social commentary - reflecting the harsh backdrop of the Depression era in his works. This preponderance for the recording of social deprivation was a topic for which The Ashcan School were famed; as documenters of the poor and of the bleak.
Lewis, however, was keen to reflect optimism in his work, bridging the gap between documentary and narrative style, a personal story insinuated within each of his pieces. He often portrayed playful scenes: girls with billowing period skirt or a jaunty cap, the rich and the poor, adults and children alongside each other in a bid of inclusivity that shines from within. Great architecture rising, swathed in light and plunged into darkness, with a concentration on nocturnal scenes - New York Nocturne (circa 1945), Bedford Street Gang (circa 1935) The Little Penthouse (1931), Relics (1928) to name but a few. He could, perhaps, be considered a transitional agent between the movements, toward a forward-thinking climate.
There was none more insistent on the narrative, psychological, element of the work as being of paramount importance than Hopper, who disassociated himself from the tendril-reach of The Ashcan movement’s documentary technique in a way that Lewis was not so insistent to do. Furthermore, he tipped his hat to Lewis, when, in the 1950s he reflected that, ‘After I took up my etching, my painting seemed to crystallise.’ It would be difficult, in that case, not to conclude that Lewis was in some way an influence on Hopper and vice-versa. It is often difficult to pick apart the intricate weave of contemporaries influence upon one-another, as a fluid process and somewhat mercurial. For Lewis certainly followed Hopper is his favour for the undisclosed story of what was about to happen or of what might happen; the promise of the storyteller, teasing, laden with subtext – the power of suggestion, an enticement to the voyeur.
As Hopper abandoned etching, concurrently Lewis’s career in the field reached maturity, enabling him to abandon his bread-and-butter commercial work in order to concentrate fully on his preferred creative etching. Upon his return to New York in the 1920s Lewis found success, he opened his first solo show with Kennedy and Company in 1929 as well as appearing in many group shows and print club collections. The Society of American Etchers, the Chicago Society of Etchers, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Print Club of Philadelphia were particularly supportive. Lewis was awarded the Charles M. Lea prize for two consecutive years in 1930 and 1931 for his works Glow of the City (1929) and Spring Night, Greenwich Village (1930), thus cementing his position as an influential printer of the American Scene.
During the onset of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, artists found working in a treacherous financial climate in the already expensive New York City, a lifestyle hard to maintain. This necessitated Lewis’s move, somewhat reluctantly, to Sandy Hook, rural Connecticut in 1932. Here, he concentrated on painting pastoral landscapes in a departure from his previously celebrated urban subject. He also produced small-town drypoint printed scenes. His paintings, expressionist in style and with much greater consideration for nature as predominant, reflected his surroundings, but were not favoured by collectors. He established the School for Printmakers with his contemporary Armin Landeck at George Miller’s lithography studio, both were leading names in the etching world, and Lewis made three.
In 1936, unable to make his mark with his Connecticut scenes, Lewis returned to New York City having retained his friendships and contacts there. There, he found an etching market in a state of collapse, the craft of lithography no longer in demand; he forged ahead for many years but failed to regain the critical success enjoyed at the zenith of his career. He took up a teaching position at the Art Student League in 1944 where he remained until 1951, however poor health forced his retirement in 1952.
As twilight fell on his métier, interest in his etchings and paintings had long since waned. Despite his brilliance the artist no longer found himself ‘en vogue’. The scene had evolved to celebrate more brightly plumed specimens considered innovative and dynamic, such as his erstwhile student Edward Hopper, whom history has idolised. Sadly, and perhaps most profoundly of all, Lewis died in obscurity on 22 February 1962, at the age of 81.
As a long-standing fan of Lewis’s work it is of great relief that in the last two decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the artist, who so richly deserves a place of wider recognition, not only at the forefront of ‘The American Scene’ but in the collective consciousness of the popular American artistic canon. Latterly, and rather joyously, his work has attracted the interest of collectors once again, and is now highly sought after; selling for tens of thousands of dollars, where previously lots failed to achieve their reserve price and languished unsold for decades. Still, much of his purchased work is held in either public or private collections, not currently on public display, but hidden in locked vaults; a fate counter to their intended destiny, as art is - to the artist - for the eye to behold.
Despite renewed interest, this virtuoso of etching, of interplay between dark and light, a depicter of ‘film noir’ long before the genre was coined, before any cinematographer had captured a sultry image of its kind - remains an enigma. His technical brilliance, a wonder in itself; and he, recognised as a true master craftsman - a mystery. So may we shine a light on a nocturne, as those lamp-lit images did once long ago in the darkest backstreets of New York City. Let us drink a toast to Martin Lewis, lest his legacy be denied.
Martin Lewis’s work can be viewed at the Detroit Institute website, dia.org, or here.