The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp – Rembrandt

I don’t know about you, but it is hellish trying to get a doctors appointment in the UK these days.  You really have to schedule in being ill if you want to see a doctor, as if you are ill on the spare of the moment, you are unlikely to be able to see a doctor within 2 weeks, by which time you have either recovered, or you have taken yourself off to A & E.  Not ideal in the slightest, but it does assist in stopping the time wasters I guess.

I don’t think this was such an issue back when Rembrandt painted “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” in 1632.  I suspect that most avoided doctors for fear of what the the treatment might be, and what might happen to them.  Rembrandt was only 25 when he was commissioned to paint this, and it was taken from the yearly public dissection (yes public, these were treated as social events…just shows how squeamish we have now become).  Every five to ten years, the surgeons guild would commission a painting by the leading portrait artist of the time and 1632 was Rembrandt’s year.  Each of the people shown in this painting would have paid to be in the picture, and the more central they appear, the more money they would have paid (with exception of the corpse, of course).

Rembrandt’s depiction radically changed the face of these types of paintings as he included a full length corpse, which had not been done before.  Rembrandt has used christian iconography for the corpse, in the way it is dressed and laid, mimicking paintings of Jesus being laid out after his crucifiction, and the scene which he has created is essentially not really what he would have seen.  The surgeon would have opened the chest cavity first due to the rate of deterioration of the organs.

The corpse in the painting is that of Aris Kindt, a known criminal at the time, who had been convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging.  You will note that the face of Aris is partially shaded, which is a technique that Rembrandt often used as a depiction of the shadow of death in his work.

It should be pointed out, that Rembrandt signed the corpse in this painting as he was still working on his signature at this stage in his career, so if you look really closely, you will see that the belly button forms the letter R.

The arm which is being dissected in this picture has been discussed and length as for a time it was celebrated how well the representation of the anatomy had been completed, and it was thought that Rembrandt probably copied this out of a textbook due to its accuracy, but in 2006 Dutch researchers recreated the scene and found several discrepancies in the way the arm had been painted.

You may also notice in this picture that not one of the surgeons in attendance appear to be looking at the corpse.  In fact they seem to be looking at anything other than the body.  This is said to be creating dynamism in Rembrandt’s work, but I recently viewed the original of this painting in the Mauritshuis museum, and it feels odd, almost off balance as it feels that no one is concentrating on the job in front of them.  Now, I would love to say that this was just my point of view, but I could hear mumbled comments from other spectators of the painting saying very much the same thing.   It makes the scene feel confused at best.

The light in this painting is coming from the left hand side, accentuating the shadow of death across the cadavers face, and highlighting each of the surgeons with great precision.

This is actually not the full painting, and perhaps the direction of stares would have made more sense had the rest of the painting survived.  The painting was damaged in a fire in 1723 and now only this central part remains.

There is a less detailed version of this painting hanging in the University of Edinburgh fine art collection, so if you are unable to make it to The Hague and are in Scotland, you can see a version of this.

Personally, I am not a fan of Rembrandt, as I find his work, while classically impressive, especially with what he was able to achieve at a very early age, a bit sketchy in the details.  Many of his works appear less refined that some of his peers, which leaves me wondering how be became such a big name.  Take for example his depiction of Andromeda,  she was supposed to be beautiful, yet in his painting she appears almost hag like.  I did however chose to write about this painting as the detail surrounding the work enthralled me.

Regardless of how I feel about Rembrandt, it is difficult to deny his talent, as I certainly wouldn’t be able to paint as he did, and as we know mimicry is the greatest form of compliment, with his works plagiarised and bastardised through the ages.  Perhaps one of my favourites is this one…


What do you think of The Anatomy Lesson?  Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?


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