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June 22, 2018

On This Day in History: December 20
Master of Caricature From Brooklyn
by Vernon Parker (, published online 12-20-2011

David Levine was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 20, 1926, the only child of Henry and Lena (Isaacman) Levine.

He went on to become a brilliant artist best-known for his caricatures of public figures, published for more than 40 years in the New York Review of Books. In addition to his caricatures, Levine loved to go to Coney Island and paint watercolors of the beach, the amusement area, and the people who frequented the boardwalk.

As a child Levine visited the garment district sweatshops where his father worked as a patternmaker (men’s pants), a scene to which he often returned as a subject of his paintings. While in elementary school he attended classes at the Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum Art School and aspired to be a cartoonist when he grew up.

After graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in 1943, Levine enrolled at the Tyler School of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, but his studies there were interrupted by a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. He returned to Tyler and graduated in 1949, and with what remained of his G.I. Bill resources, went back to Manhattan to study with Hans Hofmann. What Levine learned from the doyen of abstract expressionism is difficult to discern; both Levine’s paintings and his caricatures look as if the 20th century had never happened, and he has referred to himself as an “art Bircher” [a reference to the reactionary John Birch Society].

Levine had his first one-man show at the Davis Gallery in Manhattan in 1953 and continued to exhibit there, with seven additional one-man shows, through 1963. The subjects of his paintings were two sets of people, or the same people seen in two different lights: garment workers at their trades and those same workers, or others very much like them, during their moments of relaxation at the beach at Coney Island. Suffused with a warm humanist feeling and an emphasis upon atmosphere and light, those intimate works echoed such 19th century masters as James Whistler, John Singer Sargent and Jean Vuillard.

On Nov. 16, 1957, a New York Herald Tribune reviewer wrote, “It is remarkable the way Levine, without being either imitative or anachronistic in this day of improvisation and abstraction, is able to work in the idiom of the 19th-century masters and still keep his pictures intense, direct and personal.” Levine’s works have been exhibited in many museums throughout the country, winning acclaim, awards and prizes. In 1971 he shared the spotlight with Aaron Shikler in a two-man exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Magazines contracted Levine to do illustrations, which led to his becoming a caricaturist of the first order. His caricatures naturally depend upon distortion — the exaggeration of external features that are somewhat extreme, such as De Gaulle’s nose or Lyndon B. Johnson’s ears. Levine explained, “What I try to look for are contradictory features. Lyndon Johnson, for example, had that pained look in his eyes all the time he was smiling. Nixon’s the opposite. He makes a smiling attempt with his eyes, but the mouth is always pulled down, as if he’s bitten on a lemon.”

Jules Feiffer described Levine as “the best political-social-literary caricaturist of this century.” Levine described himself as “a painter supported by a hobby — satirical drawing.”

In January 1968 both Time and Newsweek magazines were graced with Levine’s drawings on their covers. In earlier years Levine illustrated children’s books. He taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was among private collectors of his work.

There are a number of collections of his caricatures available in book form: The Man from M.A.L.I.C.E. (1966); Pens and Needles (1969) and No Known Survivors (1970).

Levine lived and dressed simply, and was described as looking like an accountant. A long time resident of Brooklyn Heights, he was also known as the leader of an informal “breakfast club” that met (and still meets) at Teresa’s Restaurant on Montague Street for about 25 years. He also played tennis at the Heights Casino, and his caricatures once hung on the walls of a now-closed restaurant on Montague Street.

He entertained no illusions about the power of his pen. “No government has ever fallen because of my caricatures,” he once said. “I titillate all those who agree with me in the first place, and maybe give them a little courage.”

David Levine died at age 83 on Dec. 29, 2009, after suffering from prostate cancer and macular degeneration.

This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)

See the Eagle blog Brooklyn Before Now for more on Brooklyn history!

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