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anatomy lesson of dr nicolaes tulp (1632), rembrandt

Artist: Rembrandt

Technique: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 216.5 cm × 169.5 cm

Year: 1632

Location of creation: Amsterdam

Current Location: Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague, Holland

Movements: Baroque, Golden Dutch Age painting

Theme: Portrait

Subject: Group Portrait

painting summary

This painting of a real life autopsy performed by Dr. Tulp, became one of the most recognizable images in the history of art, as the young artist rendered the scene in an innovative manner, bringing a new twist to group portraiture, and setting the precedents for his entire career.

general description

The painting depicts an anatomy lesson, where a corpse lies on the examination table, as its arm is cut wide open and the interior of his hand is completely visible. Around him are eight men dressed in aristocratic clothes: one interacts with the dead body; other three lean over to pay close attention, and the other four gaze elsewhere.

The Anatomy Lesson (1632).

Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is pictured explaining the musculature of the arm to a group of seven surgeons, at the yearly event of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild (open to fellow doctors, students, and the general public), in 1632, where an autopsy would occur.

Detail of surgeons looking on.

This painting, depicting a live anatomy lesson, became one of the most famous artworks in history. It is also a founding stone in Rembrandt’s artistic pursuit.

Shortly after Rembrandt’s arrival to Amsterdam, a year later, he received the commission of this work, for the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild. The group portrait depicts various doctors who paid commissions to be included in the painting. It is surprising the fact that he was offered this commission in the first place, since there were plenty of other native artists available, as he was only a 26 year old newcomer. During this time, Dutch artists, including Rembrandt, were endorsed by a growing, wealthy and Protestant middle class.

historical notes

The moment can be traced back to January 1632, when Dr. Tulp was the official City Anatomist. At that time, the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons only authorized one public dissection a year, during the winter (as the pungent smell of the corpse would become unbearable at any other time), where the body could only be from an executed criminal. In the 17th century, these anatomy lessons were considered as a social event, that were performed in theaters with a full audience of students, fellow doctors and the general public, provided they paid an entrance fee.

The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz (1619), Nicolaes Pickenoy.

There are eight surgeons, well dressed to the occasion, and a dead body in the image. On the paper held by the man in the back are all the names of the men who appear in the painting. It is also believed that the figure standing upright behind and the one in the far left were added later on. The dead body on the examination table belongs to the criminal Aris Kindt, sentenced to death by hanging for armed robbery, executed on the same day as the autopsy, earlier on the day.

Detail of the surgeons.

Detail of the corpses feet and anatomy book.

In 1628, he was nominated praelector (lecturer) of the Amsterdam Anatomy Guild. With this position came the responsibility of carrying out the annual public event, about the human anatomy. This was his second year performing this event.

Detail of Dr Nicolaes cutting the arm wide open.

content analysis

Emotion of Shock: This painting caused a great deal of shock and surprise among the people outside the medical field, and continues to do so even today. The depicted subject of death produces a feeling of disgust and aversion.

Detail of the surgeons looking on attentively.

Artistic Signature: This painting is signed with his forename, in the top left corner, perhaps for the first time (instead of using the monogram RHL). This may indicate the growing confidence of the artist.

Anatomical Accuracy: Although many medical experts stated Rembrandt’s accuracy, further studies point to several discrepancies. While some suggest he copied the design for the arm from a textbook, the fact is some features, such as the flexor compartment originating from the lateral epicondyle, while it should in fact be the common extensor origin to originate at the lateral epicondyle. In addition, the white cord running across the forearm is also a mistake, though to be an ulnar nerve, when it was most likely to be the accessory abductor digiti minimi, a tendon of an abnormal muscle.

The Characters: Each character shows a very individual facial expression, while they all look at different directions – one gazes directly at the viewer, a few intensely stare at the corpse, one gazes at the audience, and another looks at Dr. Tulp (the only one wearing a hat). Regarding the cadaver, his torso is much more illuminated, lying almost in parallel to the visual canvas.

The Union of Science and Art: By depicting a physician at work, Rembrandt recalls the importance of art as the basis of science, establishing a deeper connection with Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical studies.

The composition is very carefully throughout in order to bring greater effect to the final image. The head of each man is in a very crucial position regarding composition rules. For example, the heads of the gentlemen furthest to the left align with the ones of the two men leaning over the corpse, at the horizontal mid-line; the figure in the background is aligned with the vertical mid-line; and other crucial midpoints are indicated by the rule of thirds and diagonals, such as the face of the doctor performing the dissection and the corpse itself.

Colour: The colour palette is subdued and sober, composed of unsaturated colours, characteristic of Rembrandt’s style.

Light and Dark: The artist employs one of his recurrent techniques in the face of the dead body, painting it slightly dark in order to evoke the idea of umbra mortis (shadow of death). Other than that, Rembrandt applies the expected chiaroscuro in the remaining figures, maintaining the background dark with almost no details.

Dynamism and Movement: The composition turns more dynamic by the way the figures are portrayed. Rembrandt transformed what could be a very static and boring composition, into a dramatic one, through the gazes of the men, each looking at a different point. The rhythmic and selective lighting also adds to the feeling of a moving scene.

Although he was only 26 years old, Rembrandt already shows a synthesis of what he is best known for: the colour palette, the play with light, the daring and different take at the group portrait, the capture of a moving action.

This painting showed a live autopsy for the first time in the history of art, whereas before this was only indicated by a steril composition with no interaction between the living and the dead (for example on The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619, by Thomas de Keyser or Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy). The subject of the dead was only reserved to studies of the human anatomy, and never depicted in painting in such blunt manner. This anatomical version deeply changed the conventions of the group portrait, by showing a complete corpse right at the center of the composition, while the men surrounding it interacted with it in a natural and attentive way. By showcasing the body in a similar manner as Christ, with a white cloth covering his waist, Rembrandt generates an additional dramatic sense to the scene. To note is the fact that the scene does not accurately portray a real autopsy, as the surgeon would start the lesson by opening the chest cavity and the thorax, as the internal organs would decompose more quickly.

The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz (1619), Nicolaes Pickenoy.

  1. This particular painting jump started Rembrandt’s career, and with it came fame and wealth. His bold, profoundly emotional and inventive composition proved to be very influential in future generations of artists, as it echoed through time.

direct influences and connections

This painting shows close proximity to Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c. 1480), using foreshortening of the corpse in a similar manner as to Christ.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (c. 1483), Andrea Mantegna.

This particular painting greatly impacted Thomas Eakins’s rendition of The Gross Clinic (1876), nearly two and a half centuries later.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic) (1875), Thomas Eakins.

Dr. Deijman’s Anatomy Lesson (1656).

When visiting The Hague in about 1856, Édouard Manet was fascinated by this piece and made a small rendering by his own division, using a limited range of colours, which he later offered to his physician, Dr. Siredey.

painting details

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Title: Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic)
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