Born to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Jack Levine grew up in the South End of Boston, where he observed a street life composed of European immigrants and a prevalence of poverty and societal ills, subjects which would inform his work. He first studied drawing with Harold K. Zimmerman from 1924-1931. At Harvard University from 1929 to 1933, Levine and classmate Hyman Bloom studied with Denman Ross. As an adolescent, Levine was already, by his own account, “a formidable draftsman”. In 1932 Ross included Levine’s drawings in an exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, and three years later bequeathed twenty drawings by Levine to the museum’s collection. Levine’s early work was most influenced by Bloom, Chaim Soutine, Georges Rouault, and Oskar Kokoschka. Along with Bloom and Karl Zerbe, he became associated with the style known as Boston Expressionism.
From 1935 to 1940 he was employed by the Works Progress Administration. His first exhibition of paintings in New York City was at the Museum of Modern Art, with the display of Card Game and Brain Trust, the latter drawn from his observation of life in the Boston Common. In 1937 his The Feast of Pure Reason, a satire of Boston political power, was placed on loan to the Museum of Modern Art. In the same year String Quartet was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and purchased in 1942 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The death of his father in 1939 prompted a series of paintings of Jewish sages.
From 1942 to 1945 Levine served in the Army. Upon his discharge from service he painted Welcome Home, a lampoon of the arrogance of military power; years later the painting would engender political controversy when it was included in a show of art in Moscow, and along with works by other American artists, raised suspicions in the House Un-American Activities Committee of pro-Communist sympathies. In 1946 he married the painter Ruth Gikow and moved to New York City.
With a Fulbright grant he traveled to Europe in 1951, and was affected by the work of the Old Masters, particularly the Mannerism of El Greco, which inspired him to distort and exaggerate the forms of his figures for expressive purposes. After returning he continued to paint biblical subjects, and also produced Gangster Funeral, a narrative which Levine referred to as a “comedy”.Further commentary on American life was furnished by Election Night (1954), Inauguration (1958), and Thirty- Five Minutes from Times Square (1956). Also in the late 1950s, Levine painted a series of sensitive portraits of his wife and daughter. In the 1960s Levine responded not only to political unrest in the United States with works such as Birmingham ’63, but to international subjects as well, as in The Spanish Prison (1959–62), and later still, Panethnikon (1978), and The Arms Brokers, 1982-83. Following the death of his wife in the 1980s came an increased interest in Hebraism, and with it a proliferation of paintings with themes from the Old Testament. In 1979 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member and became a full Academician in 1982.
Jack Levine once said of himself that, “I am primarily concerned with the condition of man.” Following his own direction, he created a distinct body of socially conscious art that probes the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.
Levine’s work is featured in many public collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fogg Art Museum, and the National Gallery of Art. In 1973 the Vatican purchased Cain and Abel (1961), to the satisfaction of Pope Paul VI. In 1978 a retrospective of Levine’s work was held at the Jewish Museum (New York). Levine was the subject of a 1989 film documentary entitled Feast of Pure Reason. Jack Levine died at his home in Manhattan, New York on November 8, 2010 at the age of 95.
“The Judgement of Paris”, Jack Levine
Numbered 70/250 lower left, signed in pencil on the lower right, circa 1964. ES dry stamp on lower right side. Plate size 6″ x 9″, sheet size 13″ x 15″