The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is the title of an oil on canvas painting completed by Dutch Golden Age master Rembrandt Van Rijn in 1632. The work was completed by Rembrandt early in his career when he was just 26 years old, and it is notable both for its subject matter, and for its significance in the development of Rembrandt’s reputation at the time. The work is currently housed at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, The Netherlands, and depicts events that have been historically dated to the 16th of January 1632 at the Guild of Surgeons in Amsterdam.
The titular surgeon, Dr Nicolaes Tulp, was well established in the Dutch medical field, at one point serving as the mayor of Amsterdam, and the 85 inch by 67 inch canvas art work is believed to have been commissioned by the Guild of Surgeons as a new group portrait of prominent councilmen and guild masters. The fact that a 26 year old Rembrandt, who had only recently arrived in the city of Amsterdam, was able to win the commission, speaks to the esteem that he was already held in within Dutch artistic circles. Also notable is that Rembrandt signed the work ‘Rembrandt. f(ecit) 1632’ – this is the first known instance in which he signed a painting with just his first name, indicating his growing confidence as an artist, with previous works having been signed with the monogram ‘RHL’ that stood for Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden.
So what about this anatomy lesson then? Well, in the 17th century anatomy lessons were considered to be social events, taking place in lecture halls or theatres, with students, colleagues and members of the public being charged an entrance fee for admittance. Only one public dissection was permitted per year, with the body normally being that of an executed criminal, and spectators were expected to dress in a suitably solemn manner given the nature of the event, but make no bones about it, it was still considered to be a social occasion.
The anatomy lesson that Rembrandt captured involved the dissection of the corpse of Aris Kindt, who was convicted of armed robbery and had been sentenced to death by hanging, with the punishment having been administered earlier that day. The face of the corpse is partially shaded, a technique known as umbra mortis (shadow of death) that Rembrandt used frequently, and the corpse’s navel is painted in the shape of a capital ‘R’, once again highlighting his experimentation with different signatures from this time. The focus of the dissection on the forearm may be due to the recent discovery of the lymphatic vessels in the body, and for many years medical specialists commended the high level of accuracy in Rembrandt’s painting.
Rembrandt created a similar painting for Tulp’s successor, titled The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Jan Deijman in 1656, and it was intended to hang alongside the original but was sadly severely damaged by fire in 1723 and only fragments now remain. It was following the creation of The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, his first major commission in Amsterdam, that Rembrandt’s profile grew and over the course of the next 30 years he would produce some of the greatest artworks of the Dutch Golden Age.