David Levine was widely acknowledged as one of the greatest, and most influential, caricaturists of the second half of the 20th century. Best known as the staff artist of The New York Review of Books, he revived the tradition of American political caricature that originated in the nineteenth century with Thomas Nast, and has been frequently described as equal to Honoré Daumier. However, he sustained an equally distinguished career as a painter, producing figurative oils and watercolours in a poetically naturalistic style. His love of Corot and Vuillard, Eakins and Sargent, pervades his studies of Coney Island and the Garment District. But more fundamental to both his paintings and his caricatures is the fact that he said, ‘I love my species’.
David Levine was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 20 December 1926, the only child of a manager of a small clothing factory.
He inherited his mother’s left-wing political opinions, while developing his own talent for drawing. Though unacademic as a child, he would frequent the Brooklyn Museum, and sketch its exhibits. His ambition was to become a comic-book artist in the tradition of Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit). Indeed, at the age of nine, he won a competition sponsored by Walt Disney to draw the character, Goofy, and was invited to the Disney studio, Los Angeles, to audition as an animator.
However, his parents had other plans for Levine once he had left Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn. So he studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School; Pratt Institute; and Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia. During the years 1945-46, he underwent national service in the US Army, serving as a cartographer in Egypt. He then returned to Tyler School to complete his degree and take an art teacher’s certificate (1946-49), and studied under Hans Hoffmann at the Eighth Street School, New York (1949). Later, he would teach at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and elsewhere.
Gradually developing as a painter and illustrator, Levine contributed drawings to such publications as Gasoline Retailer and – more prestigiously – exhibited paintings at the Davis Gallery, East 60th Street, New York (from 1953 to 1963). In 1955, he received the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award, the first of many prizes. During the following year, he and Aaron Shikler co-founded The Painting Group; set up as a forum for figurative artists in reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, it continues to thrive.
Levine produced the first of more than a thousand illustrations for Esquire in 1958, and then freelanced for the magazine (joining Ed Sorel and Jules Feiffer, and becoming close friends with both of them). Five years later, in 1963, Barbara Epstein founded The New York Review of Books, and asked the Art Director of Esquire to design the cover page. Through his influence, Levine became staff artist, and has provided weekly caricatures of politicians, writers and other cultural figures for over forty years. Gradually, his work would also appear in many other periodicals, including The Nation, Newsweek, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Time and The Washington Post. His beautiful and distinctive style, emphasising his subjects’ heads and often incorporating arresting visual puns, has proved highly influential.
Also in 1963, Levine joined the Forum Gallery, then in Madison Avenue, which has provided an outlet for his painting through fifteen solo shows. Sadly, in 1968, a fire in his studio in Brooklyn’s Park Slope destroyed most of his large-scale early work in oil, an event that led him to change his approach, and work on a smaller scale, often in watercolour. Beyond New York, he was given exhibitions in Washington, Beverly Hills and Columbus, Georgia, and in several European cities: Oxford, Paris, Munich and Stuttgart.
Levine’s many awards include the Isaac Maynard, Julius Hallgarten and Thomas B Clarke awards (all from the National Academy of Design), the George Polk Memorial Award (1965), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1967), the Childe Hassam Purchase Prize (American Academy of Arts and Letters), the John Pike Memorial Prize and the Gold Medal of the American Academy (1992) and Institute of Arts and Letters. Internationally, Levine has received France’s Légion d’honneur award, the Thomas Nast Award in Landau, Germany, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cartoon Art Trust in the UK (1996).
David Levine lived and worked in Brooklyn Heights, New York. He died of prostate cancer at New York Presbyterian Hospital, Manhattan, on 29 December 2009.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the National Portrait Gallery; and Brooklyn Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Library of Congress (Washington DC), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the National Portrait Gallery (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC) and The Morgan Library & Museum (New York).
Further reading (including collections of caricatures): Thomas S Buechner (foreword), The Arts of David Levine, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1978; Thomas S Buechner, Paintings and Drawings by David Levine and Aaron Shikler, New York: Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, 1971; John Kenneth Galbraith (intro), No Known Survivors. David Levine’s Political Prank, Boston: Gambit, 1970; David Leopold (ed), American Presidents, Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008; Malcolm Muggeridge (intro), The Man from M.A.L.I.C.E., New York: Dutton, 1960; John Updike (intro), Pens and Needles. Literary Caricatures by David Levine, Boston: Gambit, 1969; Ian McKibbin White, The Watercolors of David Levine, Washington DC: The Phillips Collection, 1980