Jack Levine was a notable American Social Realist, whose satirical paintings were directed at the corruption and evils he observed in business, politics, and society. Levine was born to a large immigrant family in South Boston where he was accustomed to poverty and street life, themes that would later inform his work. At an early age, Levine studied art with Harold Zimmerman and Denman Ross, founder of Harvard University’s art department. These mentors encouraged Levine’s pursuit of art and instilled an appreciation for classical art history and technique. Levine’s earliest influences were old masters like Titian, Velásquez, and Goya, and German Expressionists like George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka. Along with childhood friend Hyman Bloom, Levine was a cofounder of the Boston Expressionist movement in the early 1930s. The group painted social and spiritual themes in an expressive, figural style. Paintings by the group are characterized by emotional directness and dark humor. The representational movement flourished during the mid-century even as abstraction was the center of the art world.
In 1935, Levine was employed as an artist for the Works Progress Administration. Using a unique style of Social Realism and Expressionism, he painted works that expressed his moral outrage with the Depression era. In 1936, he exhibited two paintings (The Card Game and Brain Trust) at the Museum of Modern Art. The following year, Levine painted The Feast of Pure Reason, a controversial painting that earned him wide recognition in the art world. The work depicted a police officer, a capitalist, and a politician gathered at a table, their portly bodies symbolic of their abuses of power. The painting was considered a sharp rebuke of police corruption and its connection to wealth and organized crime.
Levine’s quick rise in the art world was interrupted by a stint in the Army during World War II. When Levine returned to New York, he witnessed the ascension of Abstract Expressionism. Despite his outlier status among the new group of artists, Levine was committed to his figural style. He joined a cadre of painters such as Ben Shan and Jacob Lawrence, who used their canvas to make social and political statements. Throughout his career, Levine addressed topics such as big business, political corruption, militarism, and racism. Levine received retrospective exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 1952, and at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1978.
In Military Symphony, Levine has painted a group of officers in elegant military regalia. Unlike many of Levine’s satirical paintings, the figures in this work do not represent specific individuals, but rather the idea of military figures throughout history. From the left of the painting, the group includes a medieval soldier, British colonial officer, Roman emperor, field marshal, and an effete French or Austrian aristocrat. When this painting was shown in the exhibition, Commitment and Ambivalence, at DC Moore in 1998, Levine noted the figures were “all invented too. I don’t paint from models.” Levine painted the scene using a profusion of colors and textures in the fabrics, from the luminescent metallic uniform of the medieval soldier, to the soft feathers in the helmets of the field marshal and British colonial officer. The emphasis on light and shadow and the stately military figures’ poses show Levine’s influence of old master artists, especially in the masterwork, The Night Watch, by Rembrandt. The painting was titled after Joseph Haydn’s “Military Symphony,” which Levine described as explosive and jazzy and complemented the style of his painting.
Military Symphony was originally in the collection of Senator William Benton, who was a personal friend of the artist. Senator Benton had an eclectic collection of twentieth century American paintings, including many social realist masterworks by Levine, Reginald Marsh, and Ivan Albright. The majority of his collection now comprises the works in The William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Military Symphony, 1966
Oil on linen
63 x 72 inches
Signed lower left
The Alan Gallery, New York
Senator William Benton, acquired from the above on May 9, 1966
Charles Benton, son of the above by descent
The Charles Benton Trust