Edmund Darch Lewis (1835-1910) was an American landscape painter associated with the Luminist branch of the Hudson River School. Like a lot of the second-tier Hudson guys, his average paintings run for $3000-5000 now but when he really steps up his game they can run for multiples of that. (Overall, prices for his works appear to have gone down over the past 10 years.) It’s pretty clear what his successes are: They are always well-lit horizontal landscapes with sun breaking through clouds over mountains with water. That seems to be a general trend, actually – the paintings with the strong contrast of light and dark – the “wow” factor paintings – are far more valued than the more monochromatic blah-ier paintings.
For instance … This one, “River Valley,” (1866) which is very big at 112 x 183 cm, sold for $14,000 at Skinner in Boston in May, 2016. That’s strong strong for him but was below the expected range of $20,000-$30,000. I’m trying to decide how good this painting is. The rocks in front look a bit fake, actually. The whole thing has a little of that “velvet Elvis” feel about it (a common problem with older landscapes), but when you stand back it’s still mighty impressive.
This one, “Nebraska Notch,” (1876) was73 cm x 127 cm, and sold for $1,900 at Alex Cooper Auctions in Towson, MD, in August 2015. That was below the expected range of $3,000 to $5,000. Now … it looks pretty similar to the one above, but not as good (also a little smaller). The lighting is darker and it is less dramatic with less going on. Still it’s interesting that this thing fetched not even 1/7th of the one above. That’s art – it either grabs you or it doesn’t. And the difference between grabbing and not-grabbing can be pretty tiny. Plus Cooper’s is a much less well-known house than Skinner.
Lewis also did a lot of verticals, which always are a bit more awkward and generally don’t sell as well. This, for instance, is of Little River in Stowe, VT, 76 cm x 50 cm, in 18xx (unclear). Clearly the same painter as above, though not as profound. Hammer price was $5,500, within the expected range of $4,000-$6,000.
Lewis has two paintings coming up at the Shannon’s Auction in Milford CT this Thursday. This first one is called “Along the Susquehanna,” (1878 — 30×50 inches) and the expected range is $4,000-$6,000. Looks a whole lot like the Nebraska Notch one, though not as good. Shannon’s is a much bigger deal than the Cooper auction house (where Nebraska Notch sold), and this Shannon auction will attract a lot of attention from Hudson River School-interested people so I suspect it will get the $4,000 number, if not more. I’m curious to see it in real life. See if it grabs me.
Then we have this: “Landscape Near the Susquehanna,” (1857), at 39 x 53 inches (still really big). It was done in 1857 so an earlier work from him. I kind of like it though in some ways it is generic. The lighting is not powerful, for instance and there isn’t too much happening. The expected range is $2,500-$3,500. I think it will get that because I suspect upon seeing it in person it will strike one as very warm and soothing. I could be wrong though.
In his day Lewis was very successful painter and became quite an affluent collector. He lived in Philadelphia, having become an associate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at age 24. He took painting trips throughout PA, NJ, NY and VT and also did a lot of nautical painting. So why are his works selling for $4,000? One answer could be that all the examples shown above are actually not his best. Lewis’ stuff is in many Eastern and New England museums. This painting of Newport Harbor at Twilight (1876 – 30×50 inches) is just basically better than the ones above. This is a recurring issue where artists’ best works get snapped up by museums over the years, leaving auctions with the leftovers.
Artprice.com has a valuation indicator for this artist going back to 1999. The peak value of an “average” Lewis was in 2006 at $5,900. Now the figure stands at $2,100. Very likely that is due to lower-quality work coming on the market now but the deterioration has been pretty steady over the past 10 years so I’d say there may have definitely been a drop-off in interest too.