The continued growth of the art collection at McMaster University has depended in large part on the support and generosity of private donations. This was the case when the University was first established in 1887 and remains true today. Without a doubt, one of the most significant donors was and is Dr. Herman Herzog Levy, O.B.E. (1902- 1990) who donated his personal collection of more than 185 European and American works of art to the University in the mid-1980s.
Herman H. Levy was the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Alsace Lorraine who settled in Canada in the late 19th century. His grandfather established a very successful family-run business in Hamilton called Levy Brothers which specialized in diamond and jewellery importing, a business which the young Herman Levy himself joined in 1923. It was around this time that Levy also first developed his interest in art while completing an apprenticeship in fine jewellery and the diamond trade in Amsterdam. Regular visits to the city’s many museums and galleries allowed him time to look at art and develop his eye. Levy also made some of his first purchases at that time including early European woodcut prints and maps and thus established a lifelong practice — the careful examination, contemplation and experience of objects of quality. As he described it, “doing what I liked best — looking at beautiful things.”
The family business, Levy Brothers, flourished for many years until 1960 when Herman Levy made the decision to devote his energies exclusively to art. As he explained it, “I liquidated the company and retired from business to look at some paintings, sculpture and some types of Chinese art and Romanesque architecture.” Today, the Herman H. Levy Gallery at the McMaster Museum of Art presents changing exhibitions highlighting art from his collection. Work by such well-known artists as Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Chaim Soutine reflect Levy’s personal taste and interests, in particular Impressionist and Post-Impressionist landscapes, portraits and still lifes.
A number of works from the Herman H. Levy Collection are also representative of the interests of his family. For example, paintings by the French artist Henri Le Sidaner or the drawings by American Marry Cassat were chosen with the involvement of Levy’s sister Elsie and, in fact, some of the early prints and paintings in the collection were actually purchased by his mother. To the greatest extent, however, the collection is the result of the efforts of Herman Levy and a process of extensive searching, careful examination and contemplation in which he engaged. Levy loved art and throughout his life was a serious collector, an advocate of lifelong learning and a consistent and generous supporter of the arts — whether through the encouragement of young artists and his support of organizations like the Hamilton Artists Inc., or his support of such institutions as McMaster University, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the National Gallery of Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum (which now houses his collection of historical Chinese ceramics).
Herman Levy’s ideas and influences continue to be felt at McMaster University in many ways. The design of the Herman H. Levy Gallery is reflective of the kind of domestic environment he created for the display of his collection in his home. The low ceilings, richly coloured walls and sparkling light all help to create a more intimate and contemplative experience for the visitor. When not on exhibit, the more than 140 paintings, drawings, prints and rare maps which also make up part of the Herman H. Levy Collection can be accessed by appointment by students, researchers or members of the public either in storage or in the Museum’s Paper Centre.
Herman Levy’s generosity has also ensured the growth of the University’s art collection. The receipt of the Levy Bequest in 1990 has made it possible for different aspects of the collection to be expanded. The purchases which have been made reflect in part Herman Levy’s own interests, but also give the collection greater scope in terms of historical, modern and contemporary art. A catalogue The Levy Legacy was published in 1996 to document this cultural legacy and a constantly changing programme of permanent collection exhibitions makes it possible for visitors to the Museum to see a selection of these works throughout the year.
The success of the Levy Bequest Purchase Programme has also brought McMaster University national and international attention as a result of numerous requests for loans to such leading institutions as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Kunsthaus, Zurich; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal; National Gallery, London; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Royal Academy, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Vancouver Art Gallery.