Jack Levine Biography

Artist (1915–2010)
Starting in the 1930s, American artist Jack Levine became known for his social realist paintings, which used satire to shine a light on the harsh modern world.


American artist Jack Levine was born on January 3, 1915, in Boston, Massachusetts, to parents who were Jewish Lithuanian immigrants. After art studies in Boston, Levine became recognized as a social realist painter. He satirized contemporary society and politics in works like "The Feast of Pure Reason" and "Finger of Newt." At the age of 95, Levine died in New York City on November 8, 2010.

Early Life and Art Studies

Jack Levine was born in the South End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts, on January 3, 1915. He was the youngest of eight children born to Samuel and Mary (née Grinker) Levine, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.

At the age of 8, Levine's family moved to Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. Levine started taking art classes at a nearby community center and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Levine's talent was soon recognized by his teachers, who included Denman Ross. Ross, an artist on the Harvard University faculty, supported Levine by offering him studio space and financial assistance. While Levine was still in high school, Ross also arranged for Levine's drawings to be exhibited at Harvard's Fogg Museum.

Social Realism in the 1930s

During the Great Depression, Levine participated in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, an agency that employed artists to produce works of public art. Two of Levine's paintings—"Card Game" and "Brain Trust"—were part of a showing of WPA art that was held at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

For Levine, as for many of his contemporaries, art needed to convey a serious and challenging message about the world that he lived in. He was influenced by European "old masters" like Titian and Diego Velázquez, who had painted on a grand scale, as well as by more recent German expressionists (such as George Grosz), who had depicted the decadence and chaos of Europe following World War I. As the 1930s progressed, Levine used art to take a harsh and often bitter look at social realities and the political establishment.

Levine received national attention for his 1937 painting "The Feast of Pure Reason." The piece, which took its name from James Joyce's novel Ulysses, showed a police officer, businessman and politician scheming together at a table. Though it caused controversy for its satirical depiction of corruption in the public and private spheres, the work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.

Commercial and Critical Success

Levine's art was exhibited at his first one-man show in 1939. World War II interrupted his career, as Levine was drafted into the army in 1942. He used his artistic talents to paint camouflage during his service. After his discharge in 1945, Levine finished his education at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and married the artist Ruth Gikow.

Levine's postwar art continued to address themes of power and corruption, often by means of caricature, distortion and expressive color. His painting "Welcome Home" (1946) was a biting portrayal of military and financial leaders. In a sign of the piece's power, the work was condemned by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Levine continued to work as a social realist painter in the 1950s and '60s, even when abstract art (such as the work of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko) became popular. "Election Night" (1954), a sardonic look at the underbelly of politics, and "Birmingham '63," a scene of African-American men being attacked by police dogs, were other important works of his middle career.

Later Life

In the 1960s, Levine experimented with printmaking, though he continued to work primarily as a painter. The 1939 death of his devout father had inspired Levine to begin painting ancient Jewish leaders and from time to time he returned to biblical subjects. Levine also remained interested in contemporary social issues. Later works—such as the large-scale painting titled "Panethnikon" (1978) and the group portrait "Finger of Newt" (1993-98)—were acerbic portrayals of national politicians and world leaders.

At the age of 95, Levine died at his home in New York City on November 8, 2010. He left behind an impressive legacy; his art had been the subject of retrospective exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Jewish Museum in New York and the Brooklyn Museum. Today, many of his creations are owned by major museums across the United States.

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