A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light

Martin Lewis’ masterful etchings—which offer shadowy, poetic glimpses of 1920s and 1930s New York—have been featured on Ephemeral New York many times before.

[“Dock Workers Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” 1916-1918]

But just when I’d given up on finding new examples of the way he illuminates the darker (and sometimes darkly humorous) edges of the cityscape, I came across the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s digitized collection—which includes a trove of Lewis’ etchings.

[“Tree Manhattan,” no date]

His street scenes demonstrate a deep understanding of the city’s many moods. Yet Lewis wasn’t a New York native. Born in Australia, he made his way to Manhattan in the early 1900s.

[“Derricks,” 1927]

By 1905, he was living on West 14th Street and making a living as a commercial artist, according to a biography on The Old Print Shop website, where his work is featured.

[“The Great Shadow,” 1925]

His first surviving etchings date to the mid-1910s. But his compositions from the 1920s and 1930s are the ones that made his name, giving him access to galleries and shows.

[“Subway Steps,” 1930]

These are finely detailed illustrations—mostly nocturnes—of solitary figures or crowds. People are coming and going along sidewalks and subway staircases, on their way home from a night out or heading to work in the morning.

[“Break in the Thunderstorm,” 1930]

Some are on rooftops or in alleys, others portray people working the night shift as the rest of the city is safe in well-lit apartments. Laundry hangs on lines; tenements are dwarfed by the glowing interiors of towering buildings.

Lewis often featured kids playing and young women dressed for a night on the town. He didn’t always indicate the exact setting of his street scenes, but he sometimes put a neighborhood or bridge in the title. (The locations of the work in this post, unfortunately, are shrouded in mystery.)

It’s hard to explain why Lewis’ surviving prints still resonate today. A New York Times review of his work from 1929 suggests that he captures the contradictions inherent in New York—the shifting light and darkness, the juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.

Interestingly, the faces of his figures are often hidden from view. But based on their body language and the surrounding street scene, we can imagine what they’re thinking and feeling.

[All images: Smithsonian American Art Museum]

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8 Responses to “A printmaker’s New York in shadows and light”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    Wow – gorgeous work. I love “Tree Manhattan.” Thank you for this post.

  2. Mykole Mick Dementiuk Says:

    Love Subway Steps. I can just imagine Martin Lewis having a peek up women’s skirts as he paints his masterpiece, naughty naughty…

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I thought you would…I remember you loving the first Martin Lewis posts way back in the early days of ENY!

  3. Dave Richard Says:

    Amazing beautiful work, I had not before heard of Martin Lewis.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I discovered Martin Lewis when I started ENY, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Just such stunning work.

  5. pontifikator Says:

    Love these! Makes me miss my native city. Does anyone know or can anyone guess what street The Great Shadow depicted?

  6. Wanderer Says:

    i used to spend hours at the old print shop. the newman family is amazing and truly treasures like the shop and the art. good friends sadly missed by me.

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