Centre College professor emeritus of art history William R. Levin recently received two prestigious honors at the 2010 meeting of the Southeastern College Art Conference: the Award for Excellence in Teaching, given annually to a member “who demonstrates an exceptional command of his or her discipline through the ability to teach effectively, impart knowledge and inspire students;” and the Award for Exemplary Achievement, conferred only occasionally and described as “the organization’s most prestigious award, given in recognition of personal and professional development as well as long-standing service to SECAC.”
The Southeastern College Art Conference is the nation’s largest regionally based visual-arts organization and includes members not only from the southeast but from all over the U.S., as well as from other countries. Its members include art historians, artists, museum and gallery personnel, art educators, visual-resources curators and institutions of higher education.
Upon hearing that he had received the awards, Levin says he felt “surprise, shock, a bit of embarrassment; in the end, tremendous gratification and affirmation in regard to my long career—one that has been intense, non-stop, often all-consuming and extraordinarily rewarding—because these citations came from highly respected peers representing a large national, even international, organization who are familiar with and understand well what I have been about professionally. And for the teaching award in particular, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to the people affiliated with Centre College—former and present students, colleagues—who wrote on my behalf.”
Levin holds a B.A. in history from Northwestern University, where he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in the history of art from the University of Michigan.
After joining the Centre faculty in 1986, he taught courses covering the entire spectrum of the Western artistic tradition. His primary focus, however, is in Italian art and architecture from 1100 to 1650.
“His incredible knowledge of and passion for the Italian Renaissance—he is the world expert on the Misericordia in Florence—enriched immeasurably our freshman humanities sequence,” says Milton Reigelman, special assistant to the president, director of international programs and J. Rice Cowan Professor of English.
Barbara Hall, H.W. Stodghill Jr. and Adele H. Stodghill Professor of Music, agrees that Levin’s absolute comprehension of this subject helped transform the freshman humanities series.
“The depth of his knowledge in medieval and Renaissance art is astonishing,” she says, “but he also brings a wider knowledge to us about art, Italian cities, history and food, among other things.”
Levin’s knowledge of all things Italian was strengthened by his spending five years (from 1976 to 1981) living and teaching in Italy. He has since returned to the country numerous times.
“He has been a leader, both logistical and instructional, on three trips abroad that we’ve taken as a group of humanities instructors,” Hall says. “Traveling with Bill is one of the highlights of teaching at Centre.”
Sharing his expertise with the wider world, Levin has written two books, Images of Love and Death in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art (1976) and The Allegory of Mercy at the Misericordia in Florence: Historiography, Context, Iconography, and the Documentation of Confraternal Charity in the Trecento (2004). For the latter book, he received the Southeastern College Art Conference’s Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research and Publication in 2004.
With his palpable love for his subject, Levin has left a lasting impression on nearly every student who entered his classroom. Hall says that having read nine years’ worth of student evaluations of Levin’s courses, she knows undoubtedly that “he was unfailingly, meticulously organized and thorough in class, and he was personally and professionally committed to his students, both in their performance in his classes and in helping them shape their future plans, either in the discipline of art history or in other fields.”
Hall adds that the retired professor “demanded much of students: for example, in the amount of material he covered and required them to know, but also in their written and oral communication. Students commented on the challenging essay questions on tests, noting that they frequently asked for creativity and broader connections to other fields or eras.”
Levin’s former students also shared how he devoted countless hours to working with them individually, refining their term papers and, for art history majors, their senior research projects. “His students all commented on how helpful he was with their work and how generous he was with his encouragement of their efforts,” Hall says.
Jane Vahlkamp Andrus ’88 is one of the countless alumni who have nothing but praise for Levin. “He excelled at teaching in several ways,” she says. “He had a profound passion for his own subject area, Italian Renaissance, that was a result of his living in Italy and spending time there with his wife and two daughters. But because he taught at a liberal arts college and was the only art historian, he also had to teach areas that might not have been as interesting to him. I had him for Ancient art history, and although I’m sure it wasn’t his favorite subject, he made it fascinating, and I greatly enjoyed it. I still remember the paper I wrote in that class on Minoan architecture!”
Andrus continues: “It’s obvious that he cares about the students and their interests. In 2008, Bill asked me to guest lecture in his Nineteenth Century art history seminar during CentreTerm. While watching him interact with the students before, during and after the class, I was struck by how much he enjoyed talking with them and hearing their views on various subjects. He truly enjoyed teaching and working with students.”
Taking Levin’s Ancient art history course whetted Andrus’s appetite for art history, and like many of the professor’s students, she pursued a career in the subject. “Art history isn’t a lucrative career—you really have to love it!” she says. “But Bill loves it so much that a lot of his students have gone on to graduate school, teaching, museums, etc. I think that says a lot about his passion for both art history and for teaching.”
Another alumna inspired by Levin to pursue a career in art history is Sheri Francis Shaneyfelt ’90, who holds a Ph.D. in art history and serves as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of History of Art at Vanderbilt University.
“Bill Levin’s enthusiasm for teaching, love of all things Italian and personal energy were instrumental in my choice to pursue art history at the graduate level,” she says, “and in my receipt of a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance Art.”
Jennifer Furlong ’02, another alumna inspired to pursue an art history career, says that “as I’ve advanced in my own studies, I’ve grown to appreciate Dr. Levin’s professionalism, ability to mentor and passion for his field perhaps even more than I did while a student at Centre. He’s a true scholar in every sense of the word. Dr. Levin, in his tenure at Centre, was able to accomplish something very rare in academia: he simultaneously maintained a very active and prolific academic career (publishing scholarly papers and manuscripts and presenting at academic conferences) while never neglecting his students or teaching. He was—and still is—readily available to his students for scholarly and professional advice. And I’d also like to add that he’s one of the most humble and caring individuals I’ve encountered.”
Levin’s “passion for the field of art history,” Furlong continues, “definitely inspired me to choose to pursue a career in the field. And in addition to his ability to inspire, I would say that a couple of Dr. Levin’s major strengths are his grasp of the subject matter and his generosity as a scholar. I still regularly communicate with him to catch up and ask for advice as I navigate through the Ph.D. process. Although I graduated from Centre College in 2002, I still consider Dr. Levin my true adviser and mentor. I know that I can always count on him for honest and sage direction. Words aren’t adequate to describe the impact that this man has had—and continues to have—on my life. I applaud the Southeastern College Art Conference for acknowledging a truly remarkable man and scholar.”
Levin’s thorough understanding of art history was not lost on any of his students. “He exhibits a greater command of all things art history better than anyone I’ve ever met,” says Mary Trollinger ’11. “I truly feel inspired by his incredible wealth of knowledge concerning not just art history but also on other related topics. I felt confident that I could ask him any question about anything relatively related to what we were learning, and he would not only have an answer, he would have a detailed, intelligent answer. Students knew that he wanted them to do well and that he’d do what he could to help them succeed.”
She adds that “the subject matter was always interesting, too, partly because it comes from the richest periods and locations in the history of art, but partly because Professor Levin made it so.”
Like Andrus, Trollinger greatly appreciated Levin’s unfailing support of his students. “He truly wants us to excel in the study of art history and in all the other things we do,” she says. “He’s been so gracious to me in the past, helping me with things like applying for internships. The way he’s so generous with his time for his students’ benefit is the mark of a truly great teacher, to me—he really does care that we succeed in and outside of the classroom. I appreciate that greatly, and I know that all of my fellow Centre students and alumni who have had the honor to take his classes feel the same way.”
Of course, not every student Levin influenced greatly was an art history major. Eric Lycan ’92, an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson in Lexington, Ky., says he becomes “more left-brained with each passing day” and yet takes “patronage of the arts seriously. Much of the credit goes to my Humanities education at Centre,” he says, “notably including Bill Levin’s art history course.”
Levin’s love of the arts, in fact, inspired Lycan to spend nine years on the board of the Lexington Children’s Theatre, two of which he served as chair. “I lent what skills I have to managing the business aspects of the organization and let the artists take care of the art,” he says.
Levin, who retired from Centre in May 2010, says what he has missed most is “preparing, reviewing for, and the actual teaching of classes. I will also miss mentoring the students majoring and minoring in the history of art; seeing them develop over the course of their college careers has always been a source of great satisfaction for me.”
Having taught countless courses during his years as a Centre professor, Levin says his favorites include the two Western Surveys (“these are the most important ones,” he says, “where the broad outlines of both history and art emerge and the basic cultural interconnections and sense of continuity are established”); Italian Gothic and Renaissance; Classical; and Medieval (focusing on the Mediterranean tradition).
“I also thoroughly enjoyed teaching the great epic poems of the Western tradition,” he says, “including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy, which I covered in the two-term freshman humanities series.”
And now, as he did throughout his long career at the College, Levin has advice for Centre students.
“Never forget that while you’re here, academics come first,” he says. “While productive studying is seldom truly fun, make certain that enjoying college includes getting the most out of your courses. Be sure to take as many courses of personal interest outside of your major as possible; this is likely your last chance to really branch out and explore in depth diverse areas that arouse your curiosity until retirement!”
He also advises students to work diligently on their writing and public-speaking. “These are lifelong skills needed in whatever career you have,” Levin says. “I always tried to critique—in a constructive manner—my students’ writing,” Levin adds, “since this is a skill they will need throughout their futures.”
Finally, he advises students to be “sure to cement a reasonable yet limited number of close friendships among fellow Centre students. These, and not your high-school friends, are the folks with whom you reach adulthood. Then do whatever is necessary after graduation to ensure that those friendships remain in place, never forgetting that enduring friendships require back-and-forth communications, that ‘it takes two to tango.’”
Levin takes his own advice and is often in touch with his former students—and they are just as often in touch with him, even those who, like Lycan, only had Levin for a single course.
In a recent correspondence with Levin, Lycan told his former professor that he and his wife “are considering a Mediterranean cruise for our 10-year wedding anniversary next year, and we’ve had some trouble picking an itinerary because I absolutely insist that it include Florence. I’m very excited to see Botticelli’sBirth of Venus with my own eyes, and Michelangelo’s David. We’ll begin and end in Rome, and take a couple extra days to see the antiquities there. You have a great deal to do with my interest in that, and it occurred to me that you might be glad to know that 20 years after the fact, the impact is still felt.”