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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn • Painting, 1632, 169.5×216.5 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Genre scene
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1632
Size: 169.5×216.5 cm
Region: The Hague
Artwork in selections: 107 selections
Exhibitions history

Description of the artwork «The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp»

"Anatomy lesson of Dr. Tulpa" - One of the most recognizable images in the history of painting, created by 25-year-old Rembrandt after moving from his native Leiden to Amsterdam. Changing a place of residence, having won success in his city, was a risky decision in all respects. However, then it was one of the richest and largest cities in Europe, where the middle class flourished - the main customer of the paintings.

In the 17th century, the genres, still lifes, landscapes and engravings were in demand among the Dutch - they were affordable, small in size and could be found in ordinary houses. Large-scale and more complex group portraits also became popular during that period. Basically, they were placed in public places to glorify the members of various organizations.

A general portrait of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, which eventually became known as Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, was offered to Rembrandt just a year after his move. It is noteworthy that he received this commission as a newcomer to the city, although local painters - for example, Thomas de Keyser and Nicolas Pikenoy - were older and more experienced in the field of group portrait. If another artist might simply have taken the previous image as a basis and inscribed new heads instead of old ones, Rembrandt created something completely new.

He depicted characters on his canvas in a different way than his predecessors. As a rule, the models sat in a row and looked directly at the viewer. Here, the surgeons are turned in profile or half a turn and grouped in the shape of a pyramid, and the main character is not on its top.

Dr. Nicholas Tulp was appointed as a designer (praelector - professor or lecturer, president) of the Amsterdam Surgeons Guild in 1628. One of his responsibilities was to hold an annual public lecture on some aspects of human anatomy. In 1632, the lesson took place on January 16 - and it was he who was portrayed by Rembrandt.

The focus of the band on the canvas is Dr. Tulp, who shows the flexor muscles on the corpse's left arm. He is the only character in the hat, and thus Rembrandt emphasizes his status. Seven colleagues of the surgeon look in different directions - one on the body, others on the lecturer, and others directly on the viewer. Each face has its own deeply personal and psychological expression. The dead man - the recently executed thief Adrian Adriansson, nicknamed Aris Kindt - lies almost parallel to the image plane. His body is fully lit, and his feet almost run into a book in the lower right corner. Most likely, this is the work of De humani corporis fabrica (“The Structure of the Human Body”, 1543) by Andreas Vesalius. In general, Rembrandt shows nine different figures, but makes it so that they look like a single group.

If the composition of the picture was different from everything that was written before Rembrandt, then the subject matter is from what could be seen in Catholic Europe. The Catholic principle of resurrection required that the dead bodies be buried whole. However, in Protestant Holland the autopsy was not only a common practice, but also a public spectacle, which was accompanied by feast, music and conversations.

There is another important point that is necessary for understanding the picture - fiction. Any student who studies anatomy and physiology knows that the opening of the human body almost always begins with the chest and abdomen - those fragments from which decomposition usually begins - and then the anatomists go to the extremities. Moreover, it is unlikely that such an important surgeon as Dr. Tulp himself dissects the body. Rather, he would give a lecture, and gave this task to others. However, presenting the frozen scene in colors, but without sound, Rembrandt distinguishes him not only with his costume, but also with his action.

There are some more interesting facts about the film “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulpa”:

• one of the elders of the guild is holding a leaflet with a list of the names of the participants;

• initially, the farthest character (at the head of the pyramid) had a hat, but in the final version of the picture only a shadow remained of it;

• Nicholas Tulp - the surgeon and mayor of Amsterdam - was born under the name Claes Peterson, but eventually became known as Nicholas (the more respected version of the Claes name) Tulp, "tulip". The ambitious young man took the surname during the “tulip fever”, and after its collapse, he publicly condemned the speculators;

• Rembrandt signed the picture with his full name, not the initials RHL (Rembrandt Harmens of Leiden), as before. This marks the beginning of a mature artist career;

• The scene hung in the Amsterdam Chamber of Weights and Measures for two centuries until the director of the Rijksmuseum Cornelis Apostle in 1817 made efforts to transfer it to his institution. However, despite the fact that the museum had to sell several pieces of art in order to redeem Rembrandt’s masterpiece, King Willem I of the Netherlands ordered the painting of the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague founded by him.

Bold, innovative and deeply psychological, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulpa was the beginning of Rembrandt's journey to fame and fortune, and also influenced future generations of artists. Without this picture, a young American Thomas Eakins would hardly write my own Gross Clinic in 1876, almost two and a half centuries later.

Author: Vlad Maslov