03 October 2023

Jack Levine: realist artist, US 1930s-50s

Jack Levine (1915-2010) was born in south Boston, the youngest of 8 children born to Jewish Lithuan­ian migrants. He first studied with Harold Zimmerman in 1924-31 while still a teen­ager, and his early work reflects their emphasis on Old Master trad­itions. Levine went on to study at Harvard Uni under Denman Ross in 1929-33. There he was int­ro­duced to, and infl­uen­­ced by the works of Georges Rouault, and my favour­ite, Chaïm Soutine.
George Grosz, 
Autumn Leaves, 1928

Oskar Kokoschka
Lovers with a cat, 1917

After finishing university, he was employed by the Federal Works Progress Administration (1935-40). In 1935 Levine joined the WPA’s Fed­eral Art Project, where he was employed from time to time. In 1937, while with the WPA, Levine painted The Feast of Pure Reason, the work that catapulted him to fame for the first time. The paint­ing, which depicted a politician, a pol­ice­man and a ​gentleman of wealth smok­ing and drinking together, was inter­p­ret­ed by the press as an ind­ict­ment of police corruption and its conn­ection to wealth and org­an­ised crime. The press was corr­ect.

This work, a critique of political corruption, was presented to the NY’s Museum of Modern Art. The trustees’ debated for a long time whether they would accept the gift or not. In the end, they did!

Levine was a social realist painter who became well known for his highly satirical and Expressionistic portraits of polit­ic­ians, soc­iety women, policeman and other members of the social fabric. Levine drew some­ of his scenes symp­ath­­et­ic to the socially opp­res­s­ed, while some were satiric comment­ar­ies on social or political sit­uations from cont­emporary life. His 1936 exhibit­ion was at NY’s Museum of Modern Art where he show­ed the paintings that were based on observed tough street scenes. See Samuel Gruber's great blog post.

Levine's career was interrupted by his moving into the Army as a camouflage painter. After the war he married artist Ruth Gikow and moved to NY. Like Bloom, his Expressionist style was based in early C20th German art, very close to the work of George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka (see above).

Levine’s interest was sparked by his study of El Greco’s Man­n­erist paint­ings, while in Europe on a Ful­bright Grant, 1951. The artist satirised the rich and pow­er­ful in paintings that echoed Old Masters stylis­t­ically eg Goya.

His work Welcome Home (1946), satirising American capit­al­ism and military pow­­er, was controversial when it was later shown in an exhibition of American culture in Moscow in the 1950s. Then he painted more comm­entary on modern US life in one of his favourite works, the thuggish Gangster Funeral (1953), which was acquired by the Whitney Museum. The squalid El­ection Night (1954), 35 Minutes from Times Square (1956) and Inaug­uration (1958) soon followed. 

Jack Levine, 
Feast of Pure Reason, 1937,
Museum of Modern Art

Jack Levine
Election Night, 1954

Jack Levine
Gangster Funeral, 1953

Jack Levine
Welcome Home, 1946

Lev­ine's works went in­to the major museums:  Art Instit­ute of Chic­ago; NY's Mus­eum of Modern Art; Metropolitan Mus­eum of Art NY; and National Gal­l­ery of Art in Wash­ington. DC Moore Gall­ery New York has represented Levine’s estate, as have the Phillips Coll­ection in Washington DC and the Walker Art Centre in Minn­eap­olis.

Levine angered rightwingers so much he was sub­poenaed to app­ear be­fore the House Un-American Activities Comm­it­tee, to be quest­ioned on his apparent pro-Communist, Jewish sympathies. Alas for his jud­ges, Levine was travel­ling in Spain at the time. In any case, the 1959 the Com­m­it­tee’s power was fading.

But not all went well for Levine; the boom in social realism and satire backed before WW2 by Pres Roosevelt's Federal Art Project was swept away post-war by different modernist movements. Levine’s response was that he was alienated from all of these movements. They offered him nothing. He thought of myself as a dramatist. He looked for a dramatic situation, which may or may not have ref­lected some current political social response. And he paid a price. Despite a retrospective exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the onward march of abstraction and avant-gardism relegated him to the margins.

He acknowledged his own marginal position: “I made quite a splash in the art world in the 1930s, and it seems to me that every year since I have become less and less well known”.

Thus Levine remained a figurative artist throughout his career and fell out of fashion with the abs­traction surge at mid-century. Lev­ine remained a man of the left but never an ideologue. He knew what side he was on and what he wanted to paint. He saw the 1930s-mid 50s as part of the general uprising of social consciousness in art and literature, and he didn't care for anything horribly modern.

Jack Levine, who satirised the rich and powerful in art, died at 95 in NY. His obituary called him an unrepentant and much-admired realist artist whose crowded history paintings skewered plutocrats, crooked politicians and human folly. 


jabblog said...

Unattractive paintings of unattractive people, though cleverly executed.

Hels said...


yes indeed. I have seen some of Levine's simple portraits that are not ugly at all, but then those plain portraits were probably NOT intended to display satirical political commentary.

The Art Story focused on his use of satire SPECIFICALLY to deliver sharp social commentary and to lampoon the corruption and hypocrisy inside America's political and military systems.


roentare said...

He is the type of artist that intrigues me. I am doing more reading on this gentleman.

Hels said...


good on you. But you might have also been sub­poenaed to app­ear be­fore the House Un-American Activities Comm­it­tee :) I certainly would have been.

Andrew said...

Anyone who could paint works showing realism of the time would be a friend of mine. I too will have to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. With the recent Trumpian outrages, hasn't it always been that way in the US.

Hels said...

Karpagam Architecture

many thanks. Are you familiar with Jack Levine's works?

Hels said...


realism in the first instance and critical comm­entary on modern political and military life in the second instance. Levine was gutsy showing his understanding of the realism of his time.

I hope Joseph R. McCarthy would never have got his horrid fingers on you. He blasted his way into public attention by going into the House of Un-American Activities Committee in 1950, and did not tolerate blacks, gays, Jews, socialists, immigrants etc etc :(

Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Not the most attractive of paintings but at least I can tell what they are which is something

hels said...

If you are referring to abstract art, I presume most people would agree with you. Looking at blotches, for example, might not add to your knowledge of the world or your emotional experiences.

But even for viewers who do not agree with Levine's politics etc, it is still worth examining his realist content.

My name is Erika. said...

This is a great post about an American artist I've heard of, but didn't know much about. I did know he worked with the Federal Works Administration during the 1930's, which was something I learned about in a book I read. It is great to see some pieces of his art though. I do like his style. It almost looks editorial. Happy October to you Hels.

Hels said...


An important federal work project, The Works Progress Administration, provided jobs creating roads, parks, bridges and dams. And the Federal Art Project hired professionals to teach art, perform music, act in theatres and write books, plays and music. Can you imagine how grateful and enthusiastic young, unemployed artists were during the Depression, once they were funded by the Fed­eral Art Project!

Margaret D said...

Certainly a diffefent take on art. Found them interesting however, it takes all different types of art to please everyone. Thanks for sharing Hels, most interesting.

River said...

I like the Autumn Leaves painting and one of the others, can't remember which. I can't paint anything worth looking at. Though I can and have painted some of my own furniture.

Hels said...


certainly a different take on art, but remember that his key era (1930s-1950s) was filled with conflict and pain everywhere. So at the best of times, Levine's political and social commentaries were going to alienate at least a third of the population, especially the big decision makers.

Examine his Feast of Pure Reason (1937), which showed an American businessman, police officer and politician scheming together. The Museum of Modern Art acquired the work, but even their board members debated whether they should exhibit it or not.

Hels said...


Me too! I do not have an artistic bone in my body, but I love historical and cultural studies. And I love travel to distant galleries, museums, architectural masterpieces and decorative art collections.