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The Anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt painted this group portrait of seven surgeons and the
physician Nicolaes Tulp in 1632. The painting is one of a series of
group portraits that were made for the board room of the Guild of
Surgeons, the earliest of which dates from 1603. An anatomy piece of
this kind has a central motif, an anatomy lesson, and a protagonist,
the praelector or reader. This painting was occasioned by the anatomy
lesson that Tulp gave in January 1632. Twice a week a leading physician
gave the Amsterdam surgeons a theory lesson. One element of this extra
training was attendance at practical demonstrations in the anatomy
theatre in order to gain a greater understanding of human anatomy.
There was one public autopsy each year, conducted in the winter because
the stench of the body would have been unbearable at any other time.
The dissection was carried out under the supervision of the praelector.
He did not necessarily do this every year, but Tulp, who had become
reader of the Guild of Surgeons three years earlier, performed his
first autopsy in 1631 and his second in 1632. It was of this occasion
that Rembrandt made his famous painting.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, signed and dated ‘Rembrandt ft. 1632’, canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, The Hague, Mauritshuis
The artistic achievement of the young painter is astounding, particularly since he had painted relatively few portraits up to this time. It looks as though Rembrandt captured the men at a specific instant in time, but in fact the painting is a careful and very well thought out composition. The viewer’s attention is focused on Tulp, who demonstrates how the muscles of the arm are attached. The corpse’s arm has been laid open for the purpose. The body used for these public autopsies was usually that of a criminal, in this case Adriaen het Kint. The names of the men portrayed in the picture are listed on the piece of paper held by the man at the back.
This painting was Rembrandt’s first group portrait. It was a prestigious commission for such a young artist. His patrons must have been satisfied with his work, since the next commission for an anatomy painting—in 1656—also went to Rembrandt. Paintings like this were—and remained—the property of the guild to which the people who commissioned it belonged. As soon as it was painted, the work was hung in De Waag, the weigh-house in Amsterdam’s Nieuwmarkt, not far from Rembrandt’s own house. The autopsy was also carried out in De Waag. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp remained in Amsterdam until the early nineteenth century. After the disbandment of the Guild of Surgeons in 1798, the guild’s paintings passed to the Surgeons’ Widows Fund. In 1828 the governors of the fund decided to sell this painting. However, the proposed public sale was forbidden by Royal Decree. The painting was then purchased by the Dutch government, and it has been in the Mauritshuis collection ever since.