ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 75 Beatrice S. Levey
Beatrice Levy has been for “the game” of art, as it has been played in Chicago, throughout her career. In 1913 as a student in the Art Institute of Chicago, she was a leader in the little group that accepted the “Armory show” — that first exhibition in Chicago of Matisse, Picasso, and the rest of the wild-eyed “fauves” and “cubists” that were exciting the rage of not only the established artists, but art students who thought the “dignity of art” was being spoofed. In 1936, she has been helping WPA in its efforts to recue the hard-hit artists from the effects of the Depression and buck up their morale.
In the days of the Armory show and immediately afterward, she and the other young progressives were for “art for art’s sake;” now that the iron heel of the Depression has forced the artists to seek the most elemental necessities of life, she has been helping to establish a dollars-and-cents equivalent for paint applied to canvas.
Times have changed, in Miss Levy’s view, not her standards — other times, other necessities.
Miss Levy was born in Chicago, directly across Langley Avenue from the location of the present Lincoln Center, and she has lived in Chicago all her life.
Her father was born in Germany, came to Kansas as a boy, was educated at the University of Lawrence, and then came to Chicago. He was of a German-Jewish farm family. Her mother is Kentuckian, formerly Paris, later Louisville, and on visits down there Miss Levy has come to adopt Kentucky as her “painter’s paradise.”
The hills and fields and types of people around Harrodsburg have furnished motifs for her very real contributions to ”the American scene,” in both paint and etchers’ ink. Only she was doing her rustic spots for the love of them before “the American scene” was dinned into the ears of our artists and collectors as a “ism.”
Miss Levy’s talent as an artist manifested itself practically in grammar school when she won a children’s scholarship for a Saturday art class in drawing. Her parents, seeing how serious she began to take her work in this class, gave her tuition in Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago throughout her high school period. So eager was she to become an artist that she hurried through her high school course, taking extra work, graduating well ahead of her class.
Entering the school of the Art Institute as a full-time pupil, it wasn’t long before she began getting recognition as a leader. She is proudest of a day in Ralph Clarkson’s class when, sketching from a costume model, she became aware that the dean of the school and another man had paused behind her easel.
“Miss Levy,” said the dean, “meet Sir John Lavery.”
The distinguished British artist had been arrested by her sketch, done on a slant, she being stationed at an extreme side instead of in one of the favored places directly in front of the model. His singling out of that sketch made her an immediate “celebrity” throughout the school.
Besides Clarkson, whose instruction she recalls with pleasure, though she painted the eminent conservative a little later in the matter of the “Armory show,” she likes the memory of Frank Phoenix, who was her instructor in life drawing. Phoenix left the Institute school to go in business with a brother in the West, and became comparatively rich. He sometimes wrote letters to his former pupils, including Miss Levy, lamenting his “desertion” of art for business. He continued his readings and “discoveries” in art history and technique, and shared his new points of knowledge with Miss Levy.
In her third and final year at the Art Institute, Beatrice Levy became secretary of the Art Students League, and she was serving in that capacity when Director Carpenter and the liberals among the Institute’s trustees brought to Chicago the “Armory show” that had been creating not only a sensation but a major scandal in New York.
Miss Levy belonged decidedly to the “advanced group” among the art students. She was one of the chosen six who constituted Clarkson’s special portrait class — six who tried Clarkson’s patience and the dean’s by singing, in classroom, “The Bells of Hell.” She belonged, too, to a special Saturday class that would now be called an “experimental school,” where students who showed special creative ability were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. Another member of this class was Szukalski.
These favored students thought it bad form to dress well — they were “bohemians,” in pursuit of art, and didn’t care who knew it. Rather, they did care, and sought thus to impress people outside their magic circle.
Came the “Armory show,” followed by a roar of protest. There was a mass meeting of the students to take indignant action, at which it was proposed to burn in effigy “Henry Hairmattress” (Henri Matisse), along with crudely executed copies of his paintings — the spectacular Matisse being singled out to symbolize the whole show.
Miss Levy and her little group of “Bells of Hell” singers met in counter-protest. She and Gerrit Sinclair were designated a committee of two to go to Director Carpenter and tell him that a few of the students, at least, were in sympathy with his action in bringing the “Armory show” to Chicago.
This little group and a small number of recruits, a few years later, became the Cor Ardens Society. Besides Miss Levy and Sinclair, it included Ramon Shiva, Carl Hoeckner, Agnes Potter, Szukalski, and a few others to the number of about a dozen.
The name “Cor Ardens” was suggested by the Russian painter-mystic Nicholas Roerich. On a visit to Chicago, he was invited to attend an informal meeting of the little group, not then organized, but in the habit of getting together at each other’s studios to discuss art and the problems that had grown out of the “Armory show.”
Their principal concern was the giving of every artist a chance to show his work. The “conservatives,” of whom Clarkson and Lorado Taft were symbols, dominated the official shows at the Art Institute and the juries were of their stripe. “Heresies” like those of the “Armory show” were taboo. Roerich, hearing and joining in with their discussions, had one of his mystical “visions” — here was a nucleus of an organization that might become international, a new hope, a new enthusiasm — “Cor Ardens,” a “burning center.”
It was in the magic flames of “Cor Ardens,” which she helped enthusiastically to fan, that Beatrice Levy reached the height of her exaltation for “art for art’s sake.”
The rejuvenated Arts Club came, with its first show current the day the armistice was signed, and after that the No-Jury Society. Miss Levy was an active participant. Gradually, the “protest” against the “academy” became effective — so effective, indeed, that the good that manifested itself in the “conservatives” was submerged along with the bad. It is only now that some sort of rebalancing, some sane equilibrium, is being struck.
“Cor Ardens” and “art for art’s sake” crumbled, like the insult utilities, in the grimer, fiercer fires of the Depression. Artists have been forced to think harder about how to live than about their ideals. Beatrice Levy, for one, laid aside the old problems — temporarily — for consideration of the new. She thinks the ideals will flourish again at some “ultimate.”
Miss Levy has distinguished herself equally as a painter and an etcher. Finishing at the Art Institute, she went the following summer to Provincetown to paint.
That autumn she went to New York where an etcher from Bohemia, Voitech Preissig, was creating something of a stir in the advanced circles of the artists. She became3 one of his students, sent back shortly afterward an etching for a forthcoming show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and to her surprise had it accepted. The following year (1915) an etching of hers was awarded an honorable mention in the San Francisco exposition. About 1922 she began experimenting in aquatint, with notable results.
In etching, as in painting, she was a “progressive.” In 1923 she was on the jury for the Chicago Society of Etchers show at the Art Institute. “Pop” Hart’s print, “A Big of San Domingo,” came up for consideration. An old-time etcher, serving on the jury, brushed it aside disdainfully. Miss Levy argues. Finally, she “traded” a vote she had cast against a humdrum etching to the other juror’s vote against “Pop” Hart. Thus “A Bit of San Domingo” got into the show , the first “Pop” Hart etching to be exhibited at the Institute.
In the same show was a big aquatint of her own, “St. Anthony.” Only one print remains in her studio of “St. Anthony.” It belongs to her mother, who has the only complete collection of her etchings.