Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
Interpretation, Analysis of Group Portrait

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The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of
Doctor Nicolaes Tulp
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632)


Interpretation of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Portrait art
Movement: Dutch Realism
Location: Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery.

For analysis of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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like Rembrandt, see
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Interpretation of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

Among the most famous group portraits of the Dutch Baroque era, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was Rembrandt's first large picture and the work with which he consolidated his reputation on moving from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631-2. Commissioned by the Guild of Amsterdam Surgeons, it shows the celebrated City Anatomist and lecturer Dr. Nicolaes Tulp dissecting the forearm of the corpse in order to demonstrate the workings of the muscle to other members of the Surgeon's Guild. Unlike similar Baroque portraits -including his own later work The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656, Rijksmuseum) - Rembrandt ignores the usual anatomical conventions, and focuses instead on the psychological aspects. Thus he highlights the keen inquisitiveness of the onlookers and their close proximity to the dead body. This prestigious commission, out of which Rembrandt created one of the greatest portrait paintings of the early 17th century, was his first group portrait as well as the first known instance of him signing a picture with his forename as opposed to the more usual RHL (Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden) - a tell-tale sign of his growing confidence. The work hung in the Anatomical Theatre of the Amsterdam Surgeon's hall in the Nieumarkt from the time it was painted, until 1828, when it was bought for the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery by King William I.



Anatomy Lectures

The Netherlands had a tradition of anatomy lectures, established by the pioneer anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-64). Once a year the Praelector Anatomiae, the head of the surgeon's guild would hold a lecture for the members of his guild during which the corpse of an executed criminal would be dissected. On such an occasion it was customary for the Praelector to have his portrait painted, along with other members in attendance. Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1593-1674) was Praelector from 1628 to 1653 and the painting captures the dissection lecture which he delivered on 31 January 1632. In addition to himself, the portrait features seven members of the Surgeon's Guild, each of whom would have paid commissions to be included in the picture, as well as the corpse of the armed robber Adriaen Adriensz, who had been hanged earlier in the day. In the bottom right hand corner there is a large open textbook on anatomy, almost certainly De humani corporis fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body) (1543) by Andreas Vesalius, with whom Rembrandt flatteringly associates Tulp.


In Dutch painting of the 17th century, group portraits of these anatomy lessons usually followed a set formula. The surgeon and the corpse would be in the centre, surrounded by guild members, and everyone would be painted staring out of the picture at the artist. Rembrandt adopts a new approach and creates a combination of group portrait and action picture. The painting in fact marked a turning point in the evolution of the Dutch corporation, or guild portrait. For the first time, the figures were unified not merely by token gestures and glances, but by their common interest in an event taking place within the composition. Any potential client would certainly have been impressed by the vitality and depth with which the 26-year old Rembrandt endowed his portraits. He would adopt a similarly revolutionary approach in his militia portrait The Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum). These two paintings alone justify Rembrandt's reputation as one of the best portrait artists in Europe, and - when other masterpieces like The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild (1662, Rijksmuseum) and The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-2, National Museum, Stockholm) are included - explain why he ranks among the best artists of all time.


The picture is not an authentic record of the January 1632 dissection (which would have begun with the opening of the stomach and cranium), but instead an imaginary construction whose composition is determined largely by pictorial considerations. The corpse is made the focus of attention, due to its intense brightness. From here, the viewer's eye is led to the illuminated heads of the audience, whose expressions reflect different degrees of attention, and to the face and hands of Tulp. The latter, marked out by his dark costume and hat, is using a forceps to indicate certain muscles and tendons of the corpse's arm, while demonstrating their workings with the fingers of his left hand.

Of the seven guild members watching, the one nearest Tulp is holding a list of the subjects' names, while the heads of the other six form an arrow pointing to Tulp's right hand which holds the forceps. This enhances the dramatic concentration of the figures on Tulp's demonstration. Rembrandt's atmospheric chiaroscuro and use of light/shadow to boost the sculptural solidity of the forms also adds to the picture's intensity. Rembrandt's mastery of the dark manner is often rightly associated with Caravaggio (1571-1610), but it is unlikely that Rembrandt himself had seen a painting by him. Instead, he probably absorbed the technique from other Dutch realist artists belonging to the Utrecht School, led by Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), who had been to Italy and become followers of Caravaggism.


The moral message of The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp is unlikely to be very deep. Obviously it emphasizes the connection between criminality and an odious death, although one feels that the picture also highlights the overall transience of earthly life. In passing, one should mention - as W. Shupbach has demonstrated in his publication Rembrandt's Anatomy of Doctor Tulp (Wellcome Institute, 1982) - that Rembrandt was also probably alluding to the fact that Tulp belonged to a religio-medical tradition which regarded the hand as the supreme mobile instrument bestowed by God on the human body. This was allied to the notion that, since the body was God's creation, the art of anatomy was a pathway to the knowledge of God.

Rembrandt Van Rijn

A quarter of a century later, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a portrait of a dissection by Doctor Johan Deyman, Tulp's successor as Amsterdam's Chief Anatomist. Hung alongside The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, in the city's Anatomical Theatre, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656, Rijksmuseum) was later badly damaged by fire in 1723, and only a central fragment survives. More reflective of the reality of the post-mortem, it shows Deyman in the process of dissecting the brain while the university lecturer Gysbrecht Calkoen holds the skull-cap in his hand. The work is noted, in particular, for its foreshortening, reminiscent of The Dead Christ (1480s, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan) by Andrea Mantegna. A modern example of the dissection genre is the wonderful Gross Clinic (1875; Philadelphia Museum of Art) by Thomas Eakins.

Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

Other examples of Baroque painting by Rembrandt van Rijn include:

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) Metropolitan Museum, NY

Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) Louvre Museum, Paris

Jan Six (1654) The Six Collection, Amsterdam

The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666) The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Return of the Prodigal Son (1668) Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


• For more about Caravaggism and chiaroscuro, see our main index: Homepage.

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