A master of intaglio, Martin Lewis’s prints are characterized by the interplay of dark and light, evoking a film noir style that radiates an authentic New York City energy. The Australian-born artist spent much of his life in the United States, working as a commercial artist before devoting himself full-time to printmaking. Lewis incorporated elements of impressionism and tonalism, and his drypoint prints and graphite drawings elevate mundane city scenes, capturing both small moments of solitude and bustling crowds. Lewis worked briefly with Edward Hopper and influenced the painter’s cityscapes; although they worked in different mediums, the two shared similar artistic visions and goals. A seminal figure in the graphic arts of the 1930s, Lewis is regarded as one of the best printmakers of the 20th century, but he is largely unknown due to the small production runs of his works.
Martin Lewis (1881–1962) was born in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia on 7 June 1881. He was the second of eight children and had a passion for drawing. At the age of 15, he left home and traveled in New South Wales, Australia, and in New Zealand, working as a pothole digger and a merchant seaman. He returned to Sydney and settled into a Bohemian community outside Sydney. Two of his drawings were published in the radical Sydney newspaper, The Bulletin. He studied with Julian Ashton at the Art Society’s School in Sydney. Ashton, a famous painter, was also one of the first Australian artists to take up printmaking.
In 1900, Lewis left Australia for the United States. His first job was in San Francisco, painting stage decorations for William McKinley’s presidential campaign of 1900. By 1909, Lewis was living in New York, where he found work in commercial illustration. His earliest known etching is dated 1915. However, the level of skill in this piece suggests he had been working in the medium for some time previously. It was during this period that he helped Edward Hopper learn the basics of etching. In 1920, after the breakup of a romance, Lewis traveled to Japan, where for two years he drew and painted and studied Japanese art. The influence of Japanese prints is very evident in Lewis’s prints after that period. In 1925, he returned to etching and produced most of his well-known works between 1925 and 1935 Lewis’s first solo exhibition in 1929 was successful enough for him to give up commercial work and concentrate entirely on printmaking. Lewis is most famous for his black and white prints, mostly of night scenes of non tourist, real life street scenes of New York City. During the Depression, however, he was forced to leave the city for four years between 1932 and 1936 and move to Newtown, Connecticut. When Lewis was able to return to the New York City in 1936, there was no longer a market interested in his work. He died largely forgotten.
Lewis’s print, Shadow Dance, sold for $50,400 at the Scenes of the City: Prints, Drawings & Paintings of New York 1900–2000 auction in New York on October 2010, setting a record price for the artist at auction.
The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, staged an exhibition of Martin Lewis prints in October 2011 drawn from the collection of Dr. Dorrance Kelly. The Bruce Museum said of Lewis: “Recognized as one of the premier American printmakers of the first half of the 20th century, Martin Lewis left an indelible mark on the landscape of the art world. Lewis was an acknowledged master of the intaglio techniques of printmaking, experimenting with multiple processes including etching, aquatint, engraving and drypoint. A highly skilled printer, Lewis created magnificent impressions that captured the energy, bustle and occasional solitude of all aspects of city life in New York. With his remove o Connecticut in 1932, Lewis instigated another topic through his printmaking: country life. This firmly entrenched Lewis as a prominent America scene artist, who captured the intersection between the urban and rural environments and shed light on the slowly emerging suburban culture.”