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Herman Herzog Levy – the Canadian Jew who built an art collection for the ages

A 1945 portrait of Herman H. Levy by Yousuf Karsh. (Courtesy McMaster Museum of Art)

The great French Realist, anti-Semitic painter, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), lived during a period that was, except for those that were even worse, the most traumatic and tumultuous in French history.

It included the overthrow of two kings and an emperor, three revolutions, a number of failed attempts (such as that of 1832, which no one would ever have heard of had it not been depicted in Les Misérables), the births, through violent events, of the Second and Third Republics, a coup d’etat followed by the imposition of martial law (that prompted Karl Marx’s: “History always repeats itself, first as tragedy, the second time as farce”), the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, a lengthy siege of Paris and the secession of Paris from the rest of France, brought to an end after 10 weeks at a cost of 20,000 (mostly massacred by the French army) dead in a semaine sanglante (bloody week), followed by the imprisonment, exile or execution of 50,000 others. Courbet was in the first category.

On Oct. 30, 1962, Courbet’s legacy would intersect with that of Herman Levy, a Prussian Jew from Trier, who, at the midpoint of this mishegoss, immigrated to Hamilton, Ont. He started a jewelry business ultimately called Levy Brothers Company that would prosper and grow for the next 103 years. He, his wife Camilla and their children were heavily involved in Hamilton’s Jewish community, as was her brother’s family.

Levy was the treasurer of Anshe Sholom, Canada’s first (and still thriving) Reform congregation. Camilla founded the Deborah’s Ladies’ Aid Society in 1873 and served as its president until 1916. Two of their sons served as presidents of Anshe Sholom and their only daughter was its organist.

Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877) Paysage à Ornans / Landscape at Ornans, 1874 Oil on canvas 61 x 78.8 cm Gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984 McMaster Museum of Art

While remaining committed Jews, these generations managed to crack Hamilton’s Jewish glass ceiling. Documents unearthed by Allison McMichael of the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, show that one of Levy’s sons joined the club in 1906 and that a Mrs. J. Levy, likely his daughter-in-law Stella, was 1920 club champion.

But, not atypically, at some point in the third generation the Yiddishkeit, such as it was, vanished. Levy’s grandson, Herman Herzog Levy, who became president of Levy Brothers on the death of his father in 1939, was regarded as an outsider by the Hamilton Jewish Community according to Rabbi Bernard Baskin, once a CJN book reviewer and Anshe Sholom’s rabbi and emeritus rabbi from 1948 to 2008. This Levy joined the golf club in 1917.

Until Hershel Goldhar (followed by other Jews) joined in the 1970s, Levy and his relatives may have been the only Jewish members. He also joined the Hamilton Club whose members at the time were from old, moneyed, Gentile families, and the even more rarefied Tamahaac Club, centred around skeet shooting in addition to pedigree. (Who has ever heard of a such a thing as a Jewish skeet shooter?) While he continued to pay dues to Anshe Sholom, Rabbi Baskin’s impression was that he had cut his ties with Jewishness but not completely shut the door.

Starting in 1948, Herman Herzog Levy amassed an art collection destined to end up in a museum on his death. He never married. Neither had his one sibling, Elsie. The idle gossip was that their mother had told them not to as mental illness ran in her family. (Right. And who has ever heard of an Ashkenazic Jewish family that is totally normal?)

A woman browses the Levy exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ont.

Though any museum would have killed for it, in 1984-85 Levy gifted the collection to McMaster University in Hamilton. Its president from 1980-1990, Alvin A. Lee, credits this to Levy’s friend, George Wallace, a McMaster University art history professor, and the fact that since the late 1950s Levy had been auditing courses in French and art history at the university.

(Kim Ness, the McMaster Museum of Art’s director from 1984-2003, credits other professors and friends and reveals that Levy began donating to the university in the 1930s.) Levy told Lee he wanted students “to be able to see real paintings hung on well lit walls.”

The 185-piece collection includes masterpieces from the canon of Western art and much Asian art as well. In 1955, Levy bought Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, one of 100 views of sunlight filtering through fog and smoke from bituminous coal to envelop Waterloo or Charing Cross bridges or the parliament building, painted between 1899 and 1904. The bridges were painted from a sixth floor room of the Savoy Hotel and from the room below it.

(This year one of Monet’s 25 paintings of grain stacks sold for US $110.7 million; Levy paid 3,400 pounds for an entire bridge.) In 1956, Levy paid 4,857 pounds for Camille Pissarro’s 1870 Pommiers en fleurs.

Herman Levy when he was in his 20s.

The collection also includes paintings by Thomas Lawrence, Jean-Victor Bertin, Vincent Van Gogh, Gustave Caillebotte, Maurice Utrillo and Georges Bracque. And, on Oct. 30, 1962, he purchased Courbet’s 1874 Landscape at Ornans for 6,000 pounds.

McMaster and the Royal Ontario Museum, sharing the residue of Levy’s estate after his death in 1990, each received $15.4 million, the only proviso being that the bequest be used within five years to buy works created outside North America. Some of McMaster’s purchases complimented or filled gaps in Levy’s collection – a Turner, a Romney and a Gainsborough, for instance. Many, however, deviated from its spirit – abstract art and concept art like a huge, bent spoon carved from oak, balancing on a tree stump, a bookshelf facing some logs, a red mirror thingy.

After touring in 2018, some of Levy’s treasures are being displayed again at McMaster until Dec. 14, in an exhibition called it is from here that the world unfolds.

The “here” I understand to be human creativity. The phrase is that of Edmund Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology. Senior curator Pamela Edmonds has intelligently juxtaposed Levy collection works with Levy bequest purchase works that he himself would never in a million years have bought, to make the viewer question hierarchy (why the title is in lower case) and the assumed supremacy of Western civilization. To make the point she deliberately withheld some blockbuster paintings, including Pommiers en fleurs.

A woman browses the Levy exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ont.

This theme makes Courbet’s Landscape at Ornans one of the show’s anchor paintings because Courbet, a disciple of the leading French social reformer of the 19th century, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, himself believed in a non-hierarchical utopia which would free workers from capitalism’s exploitation (as did Pissarro, whose Pommiers en fleurs makes precisely that point.)

Courbet changed art to give voice to the oppressed. French painting then consisted primarily of the Classical style exemplified by Bertin and Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres or the Romantic style exemplified by Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People or Theodore Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. These artists rarely painted anything they had witnessed.

Courbet burst on the scene with The Stonebreakers, (1849-50) that brutally and Realistically depicts a teenager and his elderly father breaking up rock to make gravel for a roadway. The rags they wear show they earn just enough to keep themselves alive to serve as raw material for capitalism, much as the rocks are raw material for gravel. At the end of the Ancien Regime day labourers spent half their earnings on bread and 20 per cent on oil and vegetables. Peasants (but no one else) living within a given distance of a route royale were subject to a corvee des routes, which obliged them to supply repair labour for between six and 30 days a year. The French Revolution did nothing to improve the material lives of the poorest.

Before Courbet, huge paintings were only made of important people and events, like Napoleon’s self coronation (by David) or Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana. In A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), Courbet painted Realistic, life-sized nobodies burying his great-uncle on a 3 x 6.5 metre canvas.

Herman Levy on his Hellenic tour in 1964. (Courtesy McMaster Museum of Art)

In 1855, he painted himself into the centre of the equally huge The Studio of the Painter, a work Courbet scholar James H. Rubin pronounces central to the history of modern art. To the right are people who influenced him personally, Proudhon being the only philosopher among them. To the left are figures representing different aspects of society. At the far left (because he is the arriviste?), a money box in his right hand, caressing it with his left, representing capitalism, is a Jew (in fact resembling Achille Fould, a Jewish-born banker and Second Empire minister).

Courbet here painted the Judeophobia of the French left, which until the mid 1880s was even worse than that of French conservatives and reactionaries. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote in Cesarisme et christianisme, “The Jew is by temperament an anti-producer… always fraudulent and parasitic… He knows but the rise and fall of prices… the hazards of demand and supply.” He used the term Jew interchangeably with financier, and wrote that Jews had placed themselves “beyond the conscience of the human race.” In 1847, Proudhon diarized: “The Jew is the enemy of humankind. They must be sent back to Asia or be exterminated.”

Ornans is a small town near the Swiss border where Courbet was from. He would move to Paris but this is where he felt rooted. He enjoyed success as a painter and made lots of money, all the while criticizing inequality. A self-absorbed egomaniac, he loved the limelight and generating controversy.

Then came the radically left wing Paris Commune, of which government Courbet was an elected councillor. After the Commune was suppressed, Courbet was among the 50,000 arrested. He was imprisoned for six months and scapegoated for the destruction of the Vendome Column, a self-aggrandizement of Napoleon’s made from a cannon captured at Austerlitz. Courbet was ordered to pay 323,000 francs. In 1873, suffering from gout, liver and other ailments, he self-exiled to Switzerland where he painted Landscape at Ornans.

A woman browses the Levy exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ont.

This is the work of a master painter at the top of his game. It thrusts three connected buildings forward at the viewer, moving his or her eye to the top right hand corner and making it follow the structures as they descend to a river. The descending line mirrors Courbet’s descending fortunes. Water is also descending out of two pipes coming out of the buildings.

But then, when the eye is at the bottom of the picture, it is attracted by a white chimney and is uplifted to the limestone cliffs overlooking the scene and the blue sky above. Is this Courbet consoling himself that at least he is able to visualize the beauty of Ornans, no matter where he is? Look further and you will see how the picture recedes upward through five different planes, enhancing the uplifting effect and folds out in halves from the centre.

Five people who knew Levy described him to me in identical terms: modest (though proud of his collection) unassuming (he did not insist that the new museum created at the time of his donation be named in his honour), courteous, shy, listening rather than wanting to be listened to, a great conversationalist, generous, curious, intelligent, and open to the views of others.

Kim Ness, the former museum director, called him a wonderful man who was always testing her but in a good way. Ross Fox, a National Gallery of Canada curator when Levy was on its board, remembers him supporting an acquisition he personally didn’t care for but which he thought the museum should have.

Would his openness to the views of others have led to approval of how his $15.4 million was spent? Could he have accepted his personal collection, containing works representing the pinnacle of European culture, being used to encourage viewers to question this civilization?

By hanging his portrait on a wall from which he can see a lot of what she has done, curator Edmonds seems to be inviting her gallery goers to ask themselves this very question. One thing is certain: whatever he might be thinking, Herman Herzog Levy is approaching it full of curiosity and with an open mind.

Murray Teitel is a Toronto-based art critic. In addition to individuals mentioned in the article, he would like to thank Carol Podedworny and Julie Bronson of McMaster Museum of Art, David Loewith, Michael Taylor and Enid Aaron, for their assistance. The opening reception for it is from here that the world unfolds is at the McMaster Museum of Art on Sept. 12, 6-8 p.m. The exhibit runs until Dec. 14.

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