The Forgotten Master
Martin Lewis died in obscurity in 1962; a retired art teacher who had found some success in his early career, but was largely forgotten after the Great Depression took away the demand for his craft, leaving Lewis to spend his last three decades teaching other people how to etch. History chose Edward Hopper, but Martin Lewis was his mentor. “After I took up my etching, my painting seemed to crystallise,” Hopper is quoted in his biography. It was Martin Lewis, an Australian emigré who had moved to New York in 1909, that helped Edward learn the basics of etching. The two became good friends on the artists circuit where each others’ work was presented to the public at various art clubs and small exhibitions.
Lewis had taken up printmaking by 1915 and was using the etching press to produce prints which became widely admired and collected by the East coast elite. While making a name for themselves in New York City, Hopper asked his friend if he could study alongside him to learn his techniques, making Lewis his mentor for a brief while. As his student, Hopper learned the finer points of etching and both artists used the great American metropolis at night as their muse.
Years later, when Hopper was preparing for a one-man show in Pittsburgh at the height of his career, he rejected the notion that Lewis’s work had influenced his own or that he had studied “under Lewis” as implied by the exhibit’s biographical essay. “Lewis is an old friend of mine,” he countered. “When I decided to etch, he, who had already done some, was glad to give me some tips, on the purely mechanical processes, grounding the plates, printing etc”. By this time, the two artists were no longer friends however. According to Edward’s wife Josephine, Lewis and his wife Lucille had given the Hoppers up, “quite understandably. It had been too much of a blow to have E.H so successful.”
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Lewis was born in Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia in 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, working as a post hole 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 1924, he returned to etching and produced most of his well-known works between 1925 and 1935 Lewis’s exhibitions in 1927-1928 were 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. His work from this period includes a number of rural, night-time and winter scenes in this area and nearby Sandy Hook. When Lewis was able to return to the New York City in 1936, there was no longer a market interested in his work. He taught printmaking at the Art Students League of New York from 1944 until his retirement in 1952. Lewis died largely forgotten in 1962.