1901 Cologne – Peace Dale, Rhode Island 1990

Subway 1934

wood engraving on wove paper; 153 x 120 mm (6 3 16 x 4 ¾ inches)

titled and signed in pencil


Eichenberg was born to a secular Jewish family in Cologne. In his youth he took life-drawing classes there and served an apprenticeship in lithography at a printing plant—where he also taught himself wood engraving. After graduating in 1923 with an M.F.A. from Leipzig, he moved to Berlin to pursue a career in book illustration. In 1933 Eichenberg was fired by Ullstein, a Jewish firm that had been taken over by the Nazis, and managed to flee to New York with his family. He went on to teach wood engraving and book illustration at the New School and to produce illustrations for various publishers. In 1935, he was hired by the Works Project Administration (WPA) and ultimately went on to become chairman of the Department of Graphic Arts at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He became best known for his illustrations of classic works of literature by such writers as the Brontë sisters, Poe, Swift, and Tolstoy.

Subway is one of four self-published wood engravings recording Eichenberg’s impressions of New York soon after his arrival at the height of the Depression. It was a period during which American artists had already begun to turn away from heroic depictions of the modern cityscape in favor of social commentary. By the 1930s, the New York subway, introduced in 1904, had become, for artists, not only symbolic of power and speed but also of the soulless, impersonal nature of modern life, a confined space in which the anonymous masses are carried each day to their toil. But while Eichenberg’s print suggests a sophisticated knowledge of such ideas, it seems that this new immigrant also found a certain gritty romance in the city. He later recalled, soon after his arrival, “exciting safaris into downtown Manhattan, my first ride on the infernal Seventh Avenue Subway, observations of life on the stoops and fire escapes of little Italy, in the streets of Harlem and Williamsburg, visits to the Aquarium and the speakeasies, and the sight of the ominous breadlines of the Bowery…”

Eichenberg shows a brightly lit subway carriage at night and notes every detail: its exhausted occupants, among them a mother and child, a working man, and two African-Americans doze companionably; only a witch-profiled woman in a distinctive bonnet suggesting affiliation to a religious group, perhaps the Salvation Army, is awake and intently focused on her book—it might be the Bible. Cheerfully cheesy advertisements for an unknown product said to “INVITE ROMANCE” and a “KISSPROOF” lipstick notably fail to engage the somnolent passengers.