(American, born in Australia, 1881–1962)
Passing Storm, 1919
Mezzotint Edition: 55
Museum purchase in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Maltby Sykes
By Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions
Born in Castlemaine, Australia, Martin Lewis spent most of his life in New York City, creating scores of indelible images of the city’s settings and inhabitants. Although he also worked in oils and watercolors, Lewis’s remarkable skills at etching earned him the reputation as one of America’s major print makers. Essentially self-taught in the medium, Lewis’s first print in 1915 was reportedly so good that his friend Edward Hopper asked Lewis to teach him etching techniques. Lewis was often drawn to nighttime scenes, which allowed him the opportunity to render moody atmospheric effects and dramatic shadows.
While many of the later prints focused on close confines along metropolitan streets and sidewalks, this relatively early work takes a more distant, sweeping view, but is no less dramatic in its depiction. Printed in sepia ink on warmtoned paper, the image’s variegated textures and rich range of values conjure a romantic assessment of The City as a magical destination. With almost operatic meteorological treatment of the heavens above towering skyscrapers, Lewis imbues the scene with sublime mystery and enticement: the clouds literally part to spotlight the destination for so many pilgrims to the land of opportunity.
The printmaking technique employed here is especially difficult to manipulate and print, making the complex image all that more remarkable. Mezzotint is a special type of engraving in which the artist renders an image by burnishing a textured copper plate to create lighter tones out of a dark field, as if drawing in white chalk on a black sheet of paper. The technique allows subtle gradations of light to dark, but the fragility of the plate’s surface permits few prints to be pulled. Only fifty-five impressions of Passing Storm were made, many of which have gone into the most important museum collections.