David Julian Levine was born on 20 December 1926 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Harry Levine, a pattern cutter, and Lena Isaacson, a nurse and communist activist. He grew up in a house full of political dabate, and as a child was taken to the nearby Ebbetts Field baseball park, where he shook the hand of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Levine went to Erasmus Hall High School, Brooklyn, where he showed an early talent for drawing. At the age of nine he entered a nation-wide magazine contest sponsored by Walt Disney, but his parents turned down the subsequent invitation to Disney’s Los Angeles Studios to audition for an animator’s position. His parents did not approve of his plan to become a comic-book illustrator, but they allowed him to attend classes at the Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum while still at school.
On leaving school in 1944, Levine went to study education at Temple University, Philadelphia, but in 1945 this was interrupted by national service in the army. In 1946 Levine returned to study fine art at Temple's Tyler school. After leaving in 1949 he studied for a short time at the Eighth Street School of Painting in Manhattan, with the abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. Levine hoped to become a professional painter, and exhibited regularly, but he also supported himself with work as an illustrator.
In 1958 Levine's work started to appear in Esquire magazine, for which he would eventually provide over 1,000 illustrations. In 1963 one of Esquire’s editors showed Levine’s work to a friend involved in launching the New York Review of Books, that was being created to fill the gap in newspaper book supplements caused by a printers' strike. Levine soon became a staff artist on the NYRB, and went on to draw over 3,800 powerful caricatures for the magazine, at one time earning more than $12,000 a month from this publication alone.
Levine always worked from photographs, but in 2008 described the process to an interviewer as "a multi-level one": "The first step is to study the piece he is to illustrate and to ensure that he is on the same wavelength as the author. Next comes the research, both pictorial and frequently biographical. Finally comes the creative process with all the variables of work, inspiration and sometimes luck." The resulting caricature was penetrating, but not violent. "I might want to be critical, but I don't wish to be destructive", Levine once said: "Caricature that goes too far simply lowers the viewer's response to a person as a human being."
Levine's heavily cross-hatched style was influenced by nineteenth-century artists including Richard Doyle, Sir John Tenniel, Gustave Doré, Honoré Daumier, and Thomas Nast. However, he was careful to distinguish his magazine work from that of Daumier. "Daumier and his circle chose their caricature subjects out of political anger and a passion for regime change", Levine noted: "The subjects of my drawings were assigned by a NYRB editor."
Levine also worked for The New York Times, Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, New York Magazine, Time magazine, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Harper's, The Nation, Playboy and others. In Britain his work was reproduced in The Sunday Times, The Observer, and the Daily Telegraph. Failing eyesight finally forced him to retire from the NYRB in April 2007. David Levine died of prostate cancer in New York on 29 December 2009.
A gallery of more than 2,500 of Levine's caricatures from the NYRB between 1963 and 2007 can be viewed at http://www.nybooks.com/gallery/
- Brian Gable “A Steady Eye”, Literary Review of Canada, 1 September 2008.
- Bruce Weber “David Levine, Biting Caricaturist, Dies at 83”, The New York Times, 30 December 2009.
- Michael Carlson “David Levine: The finest US political caricaturist of the 20th century”, The Guardian, 1 January 2010, p.32.
- John Banville “Laughter lines”, The Guardian, 16 January 2010, Review p.16.
- Mark Bryant “David Levine: Caricaturist famous for his drawings of US presidents”, The Independent, 18 January 2010, p.34.
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