A few days ago I featured Rembrandt’s painting Bathsheba at her toilet and to me the interest in the painting was three-fold. The picture itself, the story of Bathsheba and her moral dilemma and the story behind Hendrickje Stoffels, who was the artist’s model for Bathsheba. Today’s featured painting is fascinating to me because of what is going on in the painting and of course I just love looking at Rembrandt’s stunning work of art.
The featured painting today in My Daily Art Display is Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp which he painted in 1632 and now hangs in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Rembrandt who was born in 1606 began work as a professional portraitist when he was about twenty five years of age.
We see before us a group of eight men standing around a corpse which is lying on a table. All are well dressed , which would immediately signify to us that these are gentlemen of some standing. The man dressed in black, wearing the wide brimmed hat is Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, a Dutch surgeon and, at the time of the painting, was the official City Anatomist of Amsterdam. The seven men around him who look on and listen intently to what he is saying are members of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons and it is more than likely that Rembrandt was commissioned to paint this picture by the Guild so that it could be hung in their offices. Almost twenty-five years later Rembrandt was commissioned again by the Guild to do a similar painting featuring Tulp’s successor and it was entitled The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Jan Deijman.
The law at the time stipulated that the City Anatomist was only allowed to carry out one dissection of a body in a year and furthermore the body must be of a criminal who had been executed for his crimes. Such anatomy lectures would usually only be carried out in winter time when temperatures were lower as there was no electricity in those days to refrigerate corpses and sometimes this experimentation and these talks would go on for several days. It is interesting to note that sexual equality had not reached Amsterdam at this time as it would not be for another hundred years that a female body could be dissected !
There is hardly any visible background to this painting although I believe if you look at the painting itself you can just make out a stone archway. Everything retreats into shadows
The lifeless body shown in today’s painting is that of Aris Kindt, aka Adriaan Adriaanszoon. It is stiff and still in sharp contrast to the animated observers. He was a violent criminal and his crime had been one of armed robbery and was sentenced to death by hanging. His recent demise is seen in the way Rembrandt has partially shaded his face insinuating that umbra mortis, the shadow of death, had started to set in. In some way the dead body is what we focus upon, probably for its gruesome element, but also by the way the artist has given it a powerful brightness. The face has an evil look about it or is that just “in our mind” because we are aware that he was an executed criminal. Although this is an anatomical lecture there is one person missing, namely, the Preparator who was the person whose task was to prepare the body for the lesson. This was considered somewhat of a menial and bloody task, which the likes of Doctor Tulp would not be expected to carry out. Tulp was a lecturer and an educator and if you look to the right of the painting you can see an anatomical text book lying open on a lecturn.
Our eyes then move to Doctor Tulp and his onlookers. The thirty-nine year old Tulp leads the experiment. His hat remains on his head to signify his standing within the group of men. The onlookers included just two doctors, the rest being made up of leading citizens who would pay handsomely for the privilege of being included in this type of official group portrait. They are all dressed in their finest clothes as if it was a social event. In reality, that is exactly what it was – a social event of the Guild of Surgeons and at such events members of the Guild could invite guests or admit paying citizens. Look at their facial expressions, what do you see? Fascinated interest or an unease at what they are witnessing for remember the dissection of a human body was not fully accepted for another century. Note how Rembrandt has positioned them randomly on different levels. Some looking up, some looking down and some stare straight out at us. This is very different to the way artists used to paint Group Portraits in the 17th century when the people stood in rigid symmetry with similar postures to ensure that no one person looked more important than the others. For us the viewer, we experience a moral dilemma regarding the experimentation of an executed person for the medical reasons. However the seven people attending the anatomical experiment are in no doubt with regards its legality and watch avidly as Doctor Tulp, using forceps he is holding in his right hand, raises the muscle and tendons of the dead man’s arm so as to demonstrate the interaction and control they have on the movement of the hand and at the same time we see Tulp with his left hand manipulating his own fingers to demonstrate to his audience the amazing action they are witnessing. It is not known how Rembrandt gained the anatomical knowledge but maybe he copied it from textbooks. Rembrandt has cleverly caught Tulp’s dramatic gesture. It reminds me of a magician who looks out at his audience with a sense of pride after he has completed his trick and maybe, for some of his on-lookers, that is exactly what Tulp has done.
In the top left hand corner of the painting we can just make out the artist’s signature (unfortunately, not very clear in my attached picture). He has signed it :
This was his usual signature, in fact it is the earliest painting of his that has been signed just using his christian name as normally he signed his works just with his initials:
which stood for Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden. Maybe the artist believed he was now famous enough to just be known as “Rembrandt” which of course is how we know him today.
There is an interesting footnote to this piece. In 2006 a group of researchers re-enacted this scene with a male cadaver and in so doing revealed many anatomical discrepancies in the way the left arm had been depicted in the painting in comparison to how it was in reality. Notwithstanding this, I hope you will agree with me that this is an excellent work of art.