Jack Levine, best known for his satirical figural compositions that express sharp social commentary, was born in Boston in 1915. Of Lithuanian descent, Levine grew up in Boston’s South End, an area crowded with European immigrants. Here, the artist witnessed the realities of street-life—drunks, prostitutes, politicians, and policemen. These subjects left a vivid impression on Levine and became central to his art, which often satirizes the quirks and corruption of various segments of society. At an early age he began recording his surroundings, drawing and sketching events of the urban scene, such as the Great Boston Police Strike. When his family moved in 1923 to Roxbury, at the time a quiet residential area, Levine relied on his memory to draw the characters and scenes that he remembered from the South End. He studied drawing at the Community Center in Roxbury from 1924 to 1931 and took painting classes at Harvard University (1929 to 1933). Through his studies and frequent visits to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the artist was introduced to the works of the Old Masters, whose techniques, styles and subjects Levine tried to emulate. Committed to art and its power to have both social and political effects, the artist worked for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project in Boston between 1935 and 1940.
In 1939, Levine had his first one-man show at the Downtown Gallery, New York. After serving in the United States Army (1942–1945), he traveled to Europe, where his appreciation of the art of the Old Masters deepened. On this European sojourn, Levine became fascinated with El Greco’s twisting Mannerist forms; he began exaggerating forms, enlarging heads and distorting figures—a device he termed “taffy-pull”—to heighten the satire or pathos in his works. During the 1950s, his compositions become tighter and the figures fully modeled and robust. At that time he began his explorations of Biblical subjects, themes that have engaged him over the past decades. Levine currently maintains a home and studio in New York.