Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, painted in 1632, is a masterful reproduction of an anatomical dissection painted on commission from the Amsterdam Surgeons Guild. This was the 26-year old artist’s first big break. The group portrait orbits the lifeless corpse, with the eminent Dr Nicolaes Tulp revealing the tendons and muscles of the forearm. The eye of the viewer, however, is not instantly drawn to the gory spectacle in the center of the canvas, but instead to the inquisitive faces and thoughtful gestures of the observers. Rembrandt portrays each of them as thoroughly and uniquely stimulated by the study of anatomy, allowing the viewer to inspect the figures with as much fascination and scrutiny as the painted subjects.
Intended to be hung in the board room of the guild, Rembrandt’s reproduction from life is also a celebration of a rare occasion: while the students received a theoretical lesson twice a week, there was only one public autopsy per year. The unfortunate centerpiece of the autopsy was usually a criminal, and in this case we even know the name of the individual: Adriaen het Kint. After becoming reader at the Guild of Surgeons, the painting depicts Tulp’s second autopsy, capturing this solemn but proud occasion for the Doctor and his contemporaries. The patrons must have been rather impressed with the reproduction of their likenesses as their next anatomical commission went to Rembrandt in 1656. Remaining on show at De Waag in Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt where the autopsy itself was carried out, the painting was orphaned at the disbandment of the guild in 1798, only for the Dutch government to declare it state property by Royal Decree.
For such a work of enduring skill and wonder, Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp was one of Rembrandt’s first portraits yet demonstrates an astounding knowledge of composition and balance. This prestigious commission so early on in his career allowed Rembrandt a challenging and ambitious departure point from which he would rewrite the history of art.
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