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The Golden Anatomy Lesson

Not on view

The Golden Anatomy Lesson

Artist: Jack Levine (American, 1915 - 2010)

Date: 1952
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 42 x 48in. (106.7 x 121.9cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'Levine'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 52.16
Label Text
Jack Levine painted The Golden Anatomy Lesson shortly after he returned to the United States from an extended stay in Europe. A satirist, Levine uses a variety of symbols to illustrate his view of post-World War II American imperialism. He situated the scene in the Pantheon, for example, to associate the activity with that of the Roman Empire. At center he placed then-president Harry S Truman, who wears a golden helmet (based on the figure from a painting that was at one time believed to have been by Rembrandt) and places his hand on the globe. It was Levine's opinion that Truman, his cabinet, and emerging multi-national corporations were carving up the world for their own interests of power and money.


Text Entries

The Golden Anatomy Lesson was painted in 1952, shortly after Jack Levine’s return from his second Guggenheim-sponsored trip to Europe. After his first sojourn, he had come back charmed enough with some Cubist ideas to experiment with colors and the flattening of the picture plane. His second exposure to the old masters as seen in Europe, particularly Caravaggio and Rembrandt, convinced him, however, that for him the most fascinating challenge was to follow in their footsteps and to paint volumes in light and shade.

Jack Levine grew up in Boston, where he early experienced disillusionment with the segment of society that set and maintained its rules. The disdain he developed for police, politicians, and businessmen as a result of their wheeling and dealing has really never left him. Nevertheless, on the way to maturity he found ample opportunities to grow and assert himself in his chosen field.

In 1952, Harry S. Truman was President of the United States and as such was not a favorite of Levine’s. The artist was well aware of the 1945 Potsdam Conference, attended by Truman, where the principal Allies of World War II met to implement the agreements that had been reached at Yalta, agreements that later failed because of disagreements between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers.

In The Golden Anatomy Lesson we see four figures gathered around a globe in a setting reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, resulting in an aura of grandeur. The artist kept his colors somewhat subdued, deep tones of gray, brown, gold, and green, in order to enhance the sculptural fullness of the characters. Certain Cubist elements remain from Levine’s earlier experimentation, such as in the highlights employed to facet the picture surface. The figures obliterate the middle ground, accentuating the recession of the distant coffered ceiling and pedimented niches.

As artists through the ages have turned to the giants of the past for their inspiration, so we see Levine turning to his idol, Rembrandt, in the title’s allusion to The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp (Mauritshuis, The Hague), and in the golden helmet as part of his iconography. But the characters are contemporary, and it is not flesh but the world that concerns them. President Truman, helmeted, occupies the center and reaches out to touch the globe. Hovering near him is James Forrestal, Secretary of Defense from 1947 to 1949 and, before that, Secretary of the Navy under President Roosevelt. To the left is Henry Wallace, Secretary of Commerce from 1945 to 1946, and at the right is a character from Levine’s imagination, who, with but minor variations, has played an important role in several of his major works. The cravat, boutonniere, and flashy finger ring are the attributes of a dishonest businessman or politician in Levine’s repertoire of characters.

When questioned about the content of this painting, Levine ventured: “I think I had some dim idea that the American ruling class was conquering the world and dividing it up.”(1) Hence Truman is presented as a Midas-like American imperialist. One must, however, not take these thoughts too seriously. Levine is foremost interested in the art of painting. The subject matter is a device around which the artist has organized his masterful brushwork, layering of paints and glazes, and balanced his colors, opaque and translucent. (Here he experimented with adding wax to the oil paint in order to increase its permanence.) Known for his satire, which by no means is the total extent of his focus, Levine amuses himself in the loneliness of his studio with the content of his paintings. He would be bored were he to turn to total abstraction.

With renewed interest in the technique of the old masters, particularly in Europe, where some of the young artists are trying to emulate their skills, the thought that Levine may one day be considered a forerunner of this new breed is intriguing; that, to Jack Levine, would indeed be sweet irony, having suffered neglect in the heyday of abstraction and disregard for traditional artistic skills.


1. Kenneth W. Prescott, Jack Levine, Retrospective Exhibition: Paintings, Drawings, Graphics, exhibition catalog (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1978), p. 17.

Presumed copyright: the artist or the artist's representative/heir(s).