McMaster Museum of Art

Story by the McMaster Museum of Art.

McMaster’s Art Collection dates back to 1887, the University’s earliest history on Bloor Street in Toronto. With the University’s relocation to Hamilton in 1930, the place and status of art enjoyed a radical increase in emphasis.

During the 1950s changing exhibitions were presented in Mills Memorial Library―coincidentally on the exact site of the present day McMaster Museum of Art / Alvin A. Lee Building.

Dr. Naomi Jackson Groves, as specialist in the work of German artist Ernst Barlach, and a painter herself taught at McMaster University from 1951-58 and became the catalyst for lively and widespread art activities on campus.

Original Mills Library exterior, now the exact site of the present day McMaster Museum of Art, 1951. William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections.

During the 1960s and 1970s several McMaster faculty members contributed to the formulation of a coherent permanent collection at the University. Notably: Dr. George Wallace, Dr. Karl Denner, Dr. Alexander McKay, Dr. Paul Walton.

As a result of their efforts, European prints and Canadian art were regularly added to the collection and their teaching philosophy, which valued the direct experience of original works of art, was embraced by the University.

The first dedicated space for a gallery at McMaster University opened in 1967, as part of the new Arts Complex in Togo Salmon Hall.

The continued growth of the art collection at McMaster University has depended in large part on the support and generosity of private donations.

Left: Tom Bochsler at the 1967 opening of the McMaster Art Gallery. Right: Onlookers at the opening.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant donors to the McMaster Museum of Art was Dr. Herman Herzog Levy, O.B.E. (1902- 1990).

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 Amsterdam. Regular visits to the city’s many museums and galleries allowed him time to look at art and develop his eye.

Herman 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.

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.”

Dr. Herman Herzog Levy, c.1950s.
Wenzel Hollar. "Unknown woman of the Fürleger family". 1646. Etching on paper. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.

Herman Levy had a long association with McMaster University which was well established by the mid-1930s. He had a lifelong friendship with 3 professors from the Department of Classics: Dr. Edward Togo Salmon, Dr. Clement Stearn and Dr. Alexander MacKay. In 1947, Levy donated funds anonymously for the purchase of a Red figure kalyx-crater from the 5th century BC in honour of Dr. Stearn. It was his first donation.

The antiquities collection had begun only a few years earlier, in 1940, with acquisitions by Dr. Stearn and Professor Homer Thompson of the Royal Ontario Museum. Subsequent donations came from McMaster alumni, including Charles P. Fell, and Jennifer and Theodore Arcand.

The coin collection grew exponentially in the 1990s under honorary curators Mr. Walter Kowalski and Mr. Bruce R. Brace.

The Museum’s collection of antiquities grew to over 200 objects; pottery, glass, carvings and jewelry from Mediterranean cultures, China and Japan, dating from the Bronze Age (beginning around 3600—3200 BC) to the Modern era. It also includes approximately 700 coins from the Mediterranean World, The Americas, Asia, and Europe, dating from the 8th century BC to the 20th century. It is currently overseen by honorary curator Dr. Spencer Pope from the Department of Classics.

The red figure kalyx-crater, made possible by Herman Levy, continues to be a centerpiece.

Red figure kalyx-crater, 5th century B.C. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art. Photo: Scott Gardner.
Ancient Roman coins. McMaster Museum of Art.

Dr. Alvin A. Lee served as President and Vice-Chancellor of McMaster University from 1980 to 1990 and was an influential champion of the University art gallery and collection.

He understood the broad educational benefit that art contributes to learning at a University and was directly responsible for the significant growth of the collection and development of the new Museum facility.

In 1983, Dr. Lee received a visit from Herman Levy. During their conversation, Levy asked, “What are your plans for the art gallery?” Ideas that had been germinating were set in motion.

In recognition of Dr. Lee’s significant contributions, the building that now houses the McMaster Museum of Art was later officially renamed the “Alvin A. Lee Building.”

Dr. Alvin A. Lee at his desk, c.1980s.

In 1984 – 1985 Herman Levy gifted his extraordinary European art collection to McMaster University. The gift comprised 185 works including more than 40 paintings concentrating on 19th century French, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work.

The “inter vivos” gift meant that the objects would remain in Levy’s possession, hanging in his Hamilton home throughout his lifetime.

Interior of Levy's Hamilton home.
Anna Brennan and Naomi Jackson Groves (seated) in conversation with Kim Ness, 1990.

Kim Ness, served as the Director and Curator of the McMaster Museum of Art from 1984 – 2003, a period of major transformation for the Museum.

She first met Herman Levy in 1984 and, thereafter, regularly visited him at his Undercliffe home for afternoon tea and lively discussion about all things art related.

Ness worked directly with Levy on the donation and stewardship of his collection and was at the helm of the Museum throughout its move to a new, state-of-the-art facility; and the implementation of the Levy Bequest purchase program.

Herman Levy Collection Highlights

  • Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect, 1903 by French artist Claude Monet hung over the fireplace of Levy’s sitting room.

One of Monet’s early landscapes “Impression: Sunrise” is credited as having provided the name for a group of painters who first exhibited together in Paris in 1874. At the time, critics and the public alike responded with outrage at the brilliant colours, broken brushstrokes, and depictions of light and atmosphere in the work of the so-called “Impressionists.”

Later in his career, Monet concentrated on depicting a series of subjects under changing environment and light conditions. He painted 42 such views of Waterloo Bridge, conveying the sensation of mist, clouds, water, smoke and city traffic.

Claude Monet. "Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect". 1903. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.
  • Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting, Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions, 1885.

Like most of the works Van Gogh finished before leaving Holland in 1885, this painting is quite dark and somber. However, the earthiness of the palette does not obscure Van Gogh’s ability to use colour as in the rich blue/green of the ginger jar. An indication of later developments is also apparent in the energy of the brushwork and texture of the paint.

Vincent van Gogh. "Untitled, Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions". 1885. Oil on canvas. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.
  • Camille Pissarro, Pommiers en fleurs, 1870, oil on canvas.

A London art dealer was so impressed by Herman Levy during the negotiations for the purchase of Pommiers en fleur by Camille Pissarro that the dealer’s widow still spoke of the occasion with enthusiasm more than thirty years later. Herman Levy purchased the Pissarro in 1956 only after repeated visits to the commercial gallery, detailed discussions with the dealer in which he tested his knowledge, thorough examination and quiet contemplation. When the sale was concluded, Levy insisted on taking the dealer and his wife on a tour of London’s diamond market so he could show them the considerable skill required in his own profession to assess the colour and quality of diamonds.

Camille Pissarro. "Pommiers en fleurs". 1870. Oil on canvas. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.
  • Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster, 1498, engraving on paper.

As a painter, printmaker and theoretician, Dürer’s influence throughout the 16th century was considerable, not only in Germany but also in the Netherlands and Italy.

The Sea Monster engraving was titled by Dürer in a journal kept during his visit to the Netherlands. A preliminary drawing for the female figure is in the Albertina, Vienna. Several interpretations of the image have been suggested. It may depict a mythological abduction scene. It is probably an illustration based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis depicting the rescue of the goddess Perimele by the river-god Achelous.

Albrecht Dürer. "The Sea Monster". 1498. Engraving on paper. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.
Dr. Herman Levy receiving a Doctor of Laws honoris causa, 1985.

Herman Levy Honoured

In November 1985, Herman Levy received a Doctor of Laws honoris causa, in honour of his exceptional contribution to the cultural life of Hamilton and generous donations to several Ontario art Museums. His modest response, was typical:

“It is strange that I am being rewarded for doing what I like doing best―looking at beautiful things.”

A lifelong learner, Levy audited lectures at McMaster University until a few months before he passed away, June 17, 1990.

Herman Levy’s Bequest

The Herman Levy Bequest was announced in 1991. It provided $15.25 million for the specific purpose of acquiring art. He said, “Collections last, buildings don’t.” His only proviso was that the artwork be non-North American in origin, in keeping with his own collecting preference.

Image is from the 25th anniversary exhibition in the McMaster Art Gallery, Togo Salmon Hall in 1992. On the walls are highlights from the collection, including several brand new additions―paintings by Otto Dix and Jean-Victor Bertin―purchased with the Levy Bequest.

The 25th anniversary exhibition at the McMaster Art Gallery, Togo Salmon Hall, 1992.

A New Building

By late 1988 the building of an appropriate gallery facility became a priority within the University’s master plan and planning and program development was initiated. Subsequent to this, the Gallery became an autonomous unit within the University.

In 1994, The McMaster Art Gallery moved from its location in Togo Salmon Hall, to a new location in the heart of campus. The architects Moffat Kinoshita Associates set to work transforming the west wing of Mills Memorial Library. It was gutted, rebuilt, and refurbished with state-of-the-art environmental and security systems and reconfigured to accommodate the newly named, McMaster Museum of Art.

The McMaster Museum of Art opened to great fanfare from across Canada. It was a celebration of the extraordinary philanthropy of Herman Levy, the birth of a new world class gallery, and a rare bright spot in the Canadian art world during a decade of massive government arts funding cuts.

The current McMaster Museum of Art, built in 1994.
Media coverage of the 1994 move to the current McMaster Museum of Art building.

McMaster now had a facility worthy of its collection (approximately 4000 objects at that time.) The McMaster Museum of Art is a Category “A” cultural institution as designated by the Government of Canada. As such, it is responsible for providing the highest standards of care and preservation for its collection of paintings, sculpture, works on paper, and antiquities. For the first time in many years, there was room for that collection to grow.

A view of the McMaster Museum of Art vault.

A large proportion of the McMaster Museum of Art collection is made up of works on paper – drawing, prints of all kinds, watercolour paintings and books.

When not on display, these objects are stored, unframed in hundreds of drawers and protective solander boxes in the Museum’s Paper Centre. They are regularly viewed by appointment by McMaster students and international researchers alike.

Views of the McMaster Museum of Art’s Paper Centre.

The Levy Bequest

Levy Bequest purchasing decisions were made by the Museum’s Acquisitions committee – with additional representation from the Department of Art and Art history including Dr. Karl Denner and Professor George Wallace.

Acquisitions Committee members in 1994 were:
Barbara Cooper
Alexander Darling
Hugh Galloway
Stephen Jarislowsky
Niamh O’Laoghaire
Mike Watson
Wayne Whillier
and Douglas Davidson, who remained active on the committee for more than 25 years.

The first purchase that the University made with Levy Bequest funds was Walter Sickert’s studio drawing for the painting of St. Jacques Church that Herman Levy had in his collection. The decision to make this purchase echoed Levy’s own collecting practice – to identify an artwork that directly relates to something you already have.

Walter Sickert. "Façade of St. Jacques, Dieppe". c. 1902. Oil on canvas. Gift of Herman H. Levy. Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper study, c. 1899-1900 purchased with the Levy Bequest. McMaster Museum of Art.

Purchasing decisions were made by the Levy Bequest Acquisitions committee, with three focused areas of excellence prioritized: Modern, Contemporary and Historical.

English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was perhaps the presiding genius of British landscape in the first half of the 19th century. The McMaster Museum of Art had acquired a significant collection of more than 90 Turner engravings, most donated by Dr. M. Brain. With the Levy Bequest, the Museum was able to purchase a painting.

J.M.W. Turner. "Boston in Lincolnshire". c.1833. Watercolour. purchased with the Levy Bequest. McMaster Museum of Art.

Another significant work purchased for the collection was the Bird Bath by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (French, 1891-1915). It was commissioned in 1914 by art critic Roger Fry, but never completed due the outbreak of WWI and the artist’s death.

With the Levy Bequest, McMaster was able to purchase both the finished bronze for the sculpture, produced scaled up as an edition of three in 1992, and the artist’s original maquette from 1914.

The bronze now sits in the centre of the lawn in front of the Museum. Its angular, stylized forms produce dramatic light and dark planes.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. "Bird Bath". 1914. Bronze. Purchased with the Levy Bequest. McMaster Museum of Art.

The Levy collection and bequest purchases were, and continue to be, regularly requested both as single object loans and full exhibitions at national and international venues. The collections administrator and curators consider each request, the context, and the safety of each artwork.

Some of the most frequently requested paintings have been reframed and glazed for greater protection.

Installation view from 'A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy', McMaster’s exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, 2018.

At the conclusion of the Levy Bequest, selective and purposeful acquisitions continued.

The Museum acquisitions committee meet regularly to develop the collection. They keep quality and the formal, stylistic and historical relationships among the works of art in the collection front of mind. They consider how each piece contributes to the teaching of art, art history and other subject areas as well as broader concerns such as learning, research, and public enjoyment.

Image from 'The Levy Legacy', a 1996 exhibition of works acquired for McMaster's permanent collection by the Herman Levy Bequest.

Conservation at the McMaster Museum of Art

Shown below is the restoration of one of Herman Levy’s gifts, Henri Le Sidaner’s Le Bouquet Devant la Fenêtre.

This French Impressionist oil painting had been covered in tissue paper ‘facings’ – small squares adhered to the surface to secure the paint layer – for many years. Conservator Sandra Lawrence removed the facings, consolidated areas of lifting and flaking paint and then removed the old yellowed varnish. The painting was cleaned and brought back to its original splendor.

Conservation at the McMaster Museum of Art.

Education at the McMaster Museum of Art

With the expanded collection, galleries and staff, The McMaster Museum of Art was able to grow its educational programming.

Gallery staff began leading guided tours for all ages, geared to each individual group’s special interest. That included behind-the-scenes views of selected artwork for classes, university students, and specialist researchers as well as hands-on art education activities for young art-lovers.

McMaster University alumna Gillian Cooper, an ardent supporter of the Museum, was the Chair of the Museum Advisory Committee throughout the move and expansion. When she stepped down after 15 years, the Museum’s blossoming programs were renamed in her honour: The N. Gillian Cooper Education Program.

The Museum’s Education Programme was named for long- time Chair of the Museum Board, donor, and volunteer, N. Gillian Cooper.

Tours at the McMaster Museum of Art.
Mary Beale. "Portrait of Charles Beale". c.1660. Oil on paper, later mounted to canvas. Gift of Herman H. Levy. McMaster Museum of Art.

Research at the McMaster Museum of Art

Extensive research has been done on works of art in the collection by art historians and scholars at McMaster University and around the world.

For over fifty years a painting in the Levy collection had been mistakenly attributed to Flemish painter Michael (Michiel) Sweerts (1618 – 1664). UK Art expert Lawrence Hendra recognized it as a rare portrait by 17th century British artist Mary Beale (1663 – 1699). This was verified by Tabitha Barber, Curator at Tate Britain.

Mary Beale is considered to be the first woman professional portraitist in England, and while successful at a time when women artists were not accepted, her work and contributions gradually faded from view. There has been a renewed interest and a scholarly revival over the past fifteen years. McMaster’s painting is a portrait of Beale’s husband Charles.

Partnerships: Building on the Levy Legacy

“As an art gallery in the heart of campus, the McMaster Museum of Art and its collections are a well-positioned resource for innovative students and scholars across all disciplines.” – Carol Podedworny, Director and Chief Curator, McMaster Museum of Art

Carol Podedworny made it a top priority to develop research and collaborations campus-wide with the Museum’s collection as the nucleus.

In addition to the continuing activities with the Department of Art and Art history; programming, research, and exhibitions were developed with untraditional and arguably unexpected McMaster partners including experts from Departments of Applied Radiation Sciences, Family Medicine, Physics and Astronomy, Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior, Entomology, Molecular Biology, Computer Engineering, English, Communications and Multimedia, Music, Athletics, and many more.

Research into McMaster Museum of Art’s art collection by experts from around the globe has resulted in three major nationally touring exhibitions and scholarly publications: A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, The Unvarnished Truth: Exploring the Material History of Paintings, and Living Building Thinking: Art and Expressionism.

Archive of Artist Works:

Credits and further reading

Official Website: McMaster Museum of Art