Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Julien Levy was not simply a collector of photographs, but a gallery owner who committed his charisma, connections, and personal resources to establishing photography’s importance in the field of modern art. From 1931 to 1948, Levy owned a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, where he exhibited the work of many of the artists he had met or befriended in Paris and elsewhere. His interest in Surrealism led to an exhibition in January 1932, before the first museum’s treatment of the subject at The Museum of Modern Art in 1936. By the end of 1933, he had already organized at least fifteen exhibitions of photographs in addition to the shows devoted to other forms of contemporary art.
Many of the artists who exhibited at the Levy Gallery are now widely recognized as masters of the photographic medium. However, at the time, Levy’s selection of work was guided by his own taste and his interest in the process of art-making more than in the individual masterpiece. As a result, the collection contains some surprising pictures by familiar artists as well as compelling bodies of work by relatively unknown photographers. Levy’s interests ranged from the history of photography, evidenced by the work of
such nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographers as Nadar, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Gertrude Käsebier, to Surrealism, seen in the photographs by Dora Maar, Brassaï, Luis Buñuel, and Salvador Dalí, to name only a few.
The centerpiece of the collection is a group of 362 photographs by Eugène Atget, two of his glass negatives, and one of the original albums in which the artist displayed his work. With the help of the photographer Berenice Abbott, Levy was responsible for rescuing Atget’s work from destruction after the artist’s death. Versailles was part of the photographer’s project to document the statuary and fountains of the park surrounding the famous French palace. In this photograph he renders this woman of stone as a graceful portrait.
The gift of the Levy Collection—a group of nearly 2,500 objects—imparts a more distinct international flavor to the Museum’s photography holdings, which hitherto were predominantly American. It also augments our renowned holdings of the work of Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. One of the delights of the collection is its group of eleven pictures by Anne Brigman, a California photographer whose works were collected by Stieglitz and published in his journal Camera Work. Other gems include a gelatin silver print of Charles Sheeler’s Side of White Barn and two platinum prints by Paul Outerbridge. Even Levy himself is represented by his series of semi-nude portraits of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Katherine Ware, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), pp. 90-91.