Julian Edwin Levi was born in New York in 1900, and his family relocated to Philadelphia six years later. At age 17, Levi enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he studied under Henry McCarter and Arthur B. Carles. Upon completing his studies at the Academy in 1919, Levi was awarded one of the Pennsylvania Academy's Cresson Traveling Scholarship which enabled him to travel to Italy during the summer of 1920.
Levi then headed to Paris where he spent the next four years. During this time he became fluent in French, looked at a wide variety of art that influenced him to experiment with abstraction, and had paintings accepted for exhibition the Salon d'Automne of 1921 and 1922. He met many artists in Paris, and developed a close friendship with Jules Pascin. He retuned for a second stay in Paris during 1926 and 1927.
Upon his return to Philadelphia in 1924, Levi and several other modern artists in the city (including his former instructors Carles and McCarter) began exhibiting together under the name "31." The group's work was not well-received. For the remainder of his time in Philadelphia, he continued to paint and on several occasions was able to see Albert Barnes' collection that normally was not open to the public. Levi moved to New York City in 1932 and was attracted to the support and cooperation offered by various artists' organizations. He became a member of An American Group, Inc., in 1933, and was in active in the American Artists' Congress beginning around 1937. Later, Levi was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an Associate Artist of the National Academy of Design, and a member of the Century Association.
The sea, beaches, dunes, and shores served as inspiration for many of Levi's paintings. He studied his subjects closely, amassing a wide knowledge of boats, fishing, and related equipment; he even learned professional fishing and sailing techniques in order to better understand his subjects. Levi also focused on painting people, and his wife often served as his model. Paintings by Levi are in many museums, among them: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Butler Institute of American Art, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Des Moines Art Center, Detroit Institute of Arts, Guild Hall, Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Newark Museum, Norton Simon Museum, Santa Barbara Museum, Springfield Museum of Art, Toledo Museum, University of Illinois, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Many of the paintings Levi produced while employed by the Federal Art Project, 1936-1938, served as the nucleus of his first one-man show held in 1940 at Downtown Gallery. He remained with Downtown Gallery for more than a decade. Later, he was associated with the Alan Gallery, Frank K. M. Rehn Galleries, and Nordness Gallery, each of which staged frequent solo exhibitions of Levi's work. He participated in most of the major national exhibitions and in the Venice Biennale, winning prizes awarded by the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Institute, National Academy of Design, University of Illinois, Guild Hall, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. A large retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by Boston University in 1962, and a small retrospective was held in 1971 at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
A highly respected and much loved teacher, Levi emphasized the importance of drawing and provided individualized instruction. He considered himself a "coach" and viewed his students as less experienced artists (all were encouraged to call him Julian instead of Mr. Levi). His teaching career, which lasted for more than three decades, began in 1946 with his appointments as a painting instructor at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research in New York City (later the New School appointed him director of its Art Workshop). In 1964 he began making weekly trips to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he taught painting; at the start of the 1977 academic year, he reduced his schedule to once a month and acted as a general critic. During the 1967-68 academic year, Levi was on sabbatical leave while artist-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. In addition, he taught summer courses at Columbia University in the early 1950s and occasionally served as a guest instructor at other summer programs over the years.
Julian Levi died in New York City, February 28, 1982, after a brief illness.