Rudolf Levy was born into a well-to-do Jewish business family in Stettin. He first trained as a carpenter in Berlin, then in 1895 enrolled at the School of Arts and Crafts in Karlsruhe, where he became acquainted with Hans Purrmann. In 1899 he moved into a studio in Munich and enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, though he did not pass his final exams. He then entered the private painting school run by Heinrich Knirr. In autumn 1903, Levy and his friend Walter Bondy moved to Paris, where the Café du Dôme became the focal point for a group of artists that gathered around Levy, Purrmann and Bondy.
In 1908, Levy became a student in the studio of Henri Matisse. The gallerist Alfred Flechtheim took note of this young, talented artist and signed an exclusive contract with him. In the First World War, Levy volunteered for the German army and fought in France. He married the photographer Eugenie Schindler in 1919, and moved to Berlin in 1922. In 1929 he set up his own private painting school on the Kurfürstendamm.
After Hitler took power in 1933, Levy’s Jewish roots meant he had to leave Germany. Numerous paintings by him were declared “degenerate” and were confiscated in 1937. He emigrated to Italy. He met up with his wife again, and insisted on a divorce for her own protection, since she was not Jewish. In 1936 he fled to America but returned to Europe in 1937 to lead a restless, itinerant life that took him back to Italy. He was waiting for an extension to his residence permit when the Second World War broke out. Attempts to leave Italy all failed for lack of funds, and he was marooned in Rome. In 1940 he took refuge in Florence, where his friends Heinz Battke and Kurt Craemer were also staying. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo. He died in January 1944 on a transport of Jewish prisoners from Florence to the transit camp of Carpi near Modena.