“Chance Meeting” By Martin Lewis ‘Chance Meeting’ is a dry point etching print by Martin Lewis and was created in the early 1930’s. The subjects are two figures, male and female, who have happened upon each other in the setting of a public sidewalk at the entrance of a storefront. It may be a dichotomy in terms to call the piece, “Idealized Urban Realism,” though Lewis’ work does harmonize well with the Urban Realist movement surfacing in this period with artists such as Edward Hopper. It also has a very idealized and stylistic quality not unlike the work of artists like Roy Liechtenstein in a much later time period. At a glance, ‘Chance Meeting’ is a simple work intended to tell a story with minimal detail and it is difficult to distinguish any definite pattern in the composition.
With careful inspection however, the viewer can discover an order in the placement of objects, the existence of symmetry, and perhaps a much deeper meaning to the piece through the interpretation of symbolism. The palate used in the piece is simply black and white, with the exception of the illusion of shades of gray created with the shading technique, cross-hatching. This intensifies the use of light and shadow in what definitely could be called chiaroscuro. The presence of a single, intensely bright directional light creates areas of extreme contrast that could be called tenebrism. An extreme variety of lighting techniques can be found, as some objects are lit from the side, and others are almost completely backlit, creating more of a silhouette than a distinguishable three-dimensional shape. Shadows in the recesses of the male figure’s face starkly oppose highlights upon his brow and jaw line.
Lewis seems to be experimenting with what might be realistic lighting conditions at night on a typical city street, and exaggerating the results in the interest of style. An area of focus is created in the foreground by the intensity of light falling off abruptly as distance increases. Balance in lighting is achieved with the occasional splash of light in a reflective surface, and the existence of smaller, less accentuated lights in the background of the print. The piece derives a lot of its realism from the textures on the surfaces of objects.
The pavement has a pattern in it that it possibly the result of its cement tiles being cast in wooden molds, leaving behind the impression of the grain. Some of the tiles are cracked and stained, giving the effect of a partially worn and aged public sidewalk. The glass in one of the structures is evidently glossy as the reflections of street lamps and automobile headlights can be seen in its surface. Cloth in the canopies on the buildings and the clothing of the subjects is very naturally wrinkled in relaxed areas and creased where it is pulled taught. These more organic shapes and textures help to balance the strict geometry and texture of the almost completely architectural background. A variety of very accurately portrayed objects fill the space with interesting, yet not distracting detail.
The signage in and around the shops is not only visible, but also legible. It is actually possible to read some of the signs. The book cart in front of the shop bears a hand drawn sign that appears to be a square of cardboard torn out of a box and is precariously seated at an off angle to it’s makeshift base. All of this meticulous attention to detail aids in creating a sense of realism in the print. In the print’s era, these objects also probably served to create a sense of familiarity for the viewer, who was probably used to seeing similar signage and objects in the physical world. In retrospect, the antiquity of these artifacts adds a degree of interest to the scene and perhaps a bit of nostalgia for some.
A sense of depth and space is created by the use of one point linear perspective. The orthogonals lead off of the picture plane to the left with the vanishing point out of sight by a considerable distance. Multiple lines that define the architecture widen to the right creating a fanlike pattern that draws the viewer’s attention to the subjects and the detail in the foreground of the print. A definition of order and balance surfaces when we begin to examine the shapes created by the long shadows cast by the light radiating from the window of the storefront.
These shadows find their angles in their own sort of vanishing point located at the light source somewhere to the inside the building and out of sight. The placement of this light source almost mirrors the vanishing point on the opposing side. The overlapping of lines stemming from these two points creates a sort of diamond shape typically associated with two-point perspective. At this point we can see that several other objects in the scene also conform to this diamond shape. Draped lengths of cloth suspended from the canopies of the shops seem to lean into the upper inward sloping angle, While the subjects themselves fit into the geometry of the lower angles. The symmetry of these angles almost frames a point between the two main subjects, where in addition to a sign advertising newspapers, perhaps a sort of understood emotional magnetism is rooted.
The subjects almost seem to be physically affected by the magnetism between them, and their bodies appear to be drawn toward each other. Lewis accomplishes this in a subtle way, and neither of the subjects appears to be unnaturally contorted. The male subject looks somewhat relaxed and is shifting his weight a bit into a stylized variation on the classical contrapposto pose. The female subject forces her hip out to one side and tilts her head a bit, posing in a way that might have been considered attractive for a young woman in the early 1930’s in America. Their clothing is of some interest because in the absence of adequate lighting, we might not have a more reliable indication of age.
Both figures are clothed in what was probably considered very casual clothing for the era. The female figure’s dress is somewhat shorter and more fitted than it would be if she were older and more conservative. The Male figure’s collar is unbuttoned and his sleeves and pant legs are rolled up. His hair appears to be somewhat disheveled. From these details we can assume that they were probably in their late teens or early 20’s, as it would be frowned upon for people of older age to dress this way in this somewhat socially conservative era. In the background of the print, we see two additional figures, also a man and a woman.
The two are standing very close to one and other, and appear to be engaged in an intimate conversation. From a literal perspective, one might draw the conclusion that this second couple represents the popularity of the concept of meeting one’s mate and, “falling in love”. It might have been a musing of many Americans in this era that the streets of urban America were filled with young attractive teenagers, courting, dating, and preparing for marriage. From a more symbolic perspective, it is feasible that this second pair of figures actually represents the same couple we see in the foreground, now “further down the road,” or further along in time. The two are now engaged in the rituals of becoming more intimate. The road itself can be seen as a symbol of the path of fate for these two characters, as it vanishes off of the picture plane into the uncertainty of the future.
Contradictory to most Urban Realist works, ‘Chance meeting’ seems to present a rather idealized and innocent view of the era, yet aesthetically, it is a fairly realistic portrait of urban city life in America’s 1930’s.