Martin Lewis (Australian / American, 1881 – 1962) was an incredibly talented printmaker whose expertise in creating incredibly detailed images of New York City challenged what was considered technically possible. Born in Victoria, Australia in 1881, Lewis lived and worked in Australia until the age of 19. He emigrated to the United States in 1900, and soon found his way to New York City. He learned how to make etchings and drypoints, and began producing his own prints. Lewis’s prints, in their technical mastery, are unparalleled. In order to understand why, however, one must understand what etching and drypoint are.
Etching is one of the most popular forms of printmaking, as it allows the artist to directly draw onto a metal plate for printing. While earlier techniques, such as woodcut and engraving, also allow for great detail and expression, the technique of engraving or woodcutting is much different from drawing; one must physically carve out the image or the negative space to make the print. Etching, on the other hand, allows the artist to make their print directly. The artist draws the image with a stylus onto a metal plate covered in a waxy substance. The plate is then dipped into acid, which eats away (or etches) the areas where the artist drew. The wax is then wiped away, the plate inked, and the print made.
Drypoint is similar. The artist sketches their pictures with this diamond-tipped needle directly onto the metal plate. This plate is then inked and printed, like an engraving or an etching. This technique produces thin, fuzzy lines throughout the image, making it appear like an engraving; indeed, the two techniques are easily confused. However, there is no chemical bath involved in the making of a drypoint (hence the name “drypoint”). Since drypoint is quite similar to drawing, many artists practice this technique.
The Genius of Martin Lewis
While these both sound simple, the ability to draw something well, create convincing space and shade properly is impressive; to make nighttime scenes is next to impossible, as this requires intensely miniscule cross-hatching. Only masters of etching, such as Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669), attempted such feats to varied success. Somehow, Martin Lewis was able to make nighttime scenes deftly and with incredible naturalism.
Lewis’ Subjects and Style
Martin Lewis’s main subjects were scenes of city life in New York City. The people, the streets, the shops, and the views of the city as it grew and bustled are all found in his etchings and drypoints. Rather than making artificial arrangements of forms or compositions of figures, Lewis’s prints are nearly photographic in their composition: we see scenes that appear like snapshots of everyday life. His prints did not highlight the rich and notable, but rather everyday people and life in the city. Often, Lewis’s scenes take place at night, with the light of the moon or artificial lighting illuminating portions of the print. This is an impressive feat of technical mastery. What Lewis creates, then, is both an incredible artistic achievement and a historical document of the time and place where he lived and worked.
Mailman, March (1936)
Nest Egg Auctions sold an incredible example of Martin Lewis’s work. Mailman, March (1936) shows a mail car driving up a winding road, with a large, bending tree in the center of the composition. Lewis captures the light effects of an overcast, snowy day with simply the black of the ink and white of the paper. The detail of the landscape, with a forest denuded of its leaves behind, further displays Lewis’s attention to detail and technical mastery. This work was also a trial impression, and only 36 examples of the print were produced by Martin Lewis.
Selling Lewis at Nest Egg Auctions
Nest Egg Auctions has a deep respect for Martin Lewis. If you have an example of a drypoint or an etching by Lewis, we would love to see it! Please send us a picture, and we would be happy to tell you more about your piece.