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Rembrandt - The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp

by Alexandra Tuschka

It is January 16, 1632, and Aris Kindt had tried to steal a man's coat earlier in the day, possibly because of the cold. January was frosty. Who the robbed man was is not known, but the drastic punishment speaks for a man of influence. On the same day Aris Kindt is sentenced to death by hanging. His right hand is cut off. Now he lies here, at the annual public dissection of a human being, organized by the Guild of Surgeons, where only people of higher society are admitted. After all, Rembrandt, contrary to the original version, then added the right hand again.

On the arm of the dead man, Dr. Tulp, the teacher on the right, has already opened the skin and shows his students what happens when one pulls on the so-called flexor digitorum superficialis. His left hand demonstrates how the fingers are now automatically flexed. A thick tome is opened in front of those present, probably the largest textbook on the subject at the time: "On the Structure of the Human Body," by Andreas Vesalius.

Seven men have gathered around the table, in reality there must have been considerably more listening to Dr. Tulp's explanations. In reality, the dissection itself is more likely to have been performed by an assistant. Rembrandt, who was commissioned to paint this group portrait at the age of only 25, had come to Amsterdam only a year before, where the men depicted were organized in a guild, and quickly established himself on the art scene with this work. Group portraits were very popular at the time of the 17th century Netherlands. The church was no longer a patron in the Protestant Netherlands; rather, the upper middle class sought new ways to express their identity, and numerous portraits bear witness to this self-confidence. Such group portraits hung representatively in the guild houses and were usually commissioned anew every 5-10 years. It was not uncommon for individual men to spend quite a bit of money to appear in such images. In this case, their identities are recorded by name on the sheet presented by the gentleman at the back right.

Instead of simply placing the men side by side, as was usually the case, Rembrandt here created a realistic moment where each sitter has an identity, but also slightly different emotions are visible. This no longer creates a rather sterile image for posterity, but rather immerses the viewer in an intimate situation that could have really happened that way. The entire group is arranged in a pyramidal form, slightly shifted to the left. Dr. Tulp is the only one looking to the left. Between him and the young man with leaf is a diamond-shaped opening. On the left are two figures on the back, one in profile and the other in three-quarter profile. At the same time, they direct us as viewers to the free place at the table. The men in the center of the picture follow the lecturer's explanations very attentively. The slightly graying one seems to want to take a look at the book - and has probably forgotten his glasses. The other has one hand tucked into his coat. A gesture we know as an expression of power from portraits of rulers. Above him is an attractive redhead, he has his eyebrows slightly drawn together out of concentration. The two men furthest in the background are looking us in the eye. All the men have snow-white collars, which Rembrandt has neatly worked out. What an effort it must have been to keep them so clean. Washing, bleaching, ironing - and that for such a bloody profession.... In return, of course, having such a status symbol guaranteed one's prestige. Rembrandt solved the task of presenting the eight men in the picture ingeniously. By the staggered composition no face overlaps. By arranging the men around the table, we encounter profile, three-quarter profile, half-profile, frontal view - through this variation, the artist makes the men recognizable and the subject of the painting interesting. He also creates depth space and does not let any of the men appear more important than his next - except for Dr. Tulp, who stands exposed by hat, clothing and arrangement.

The light seems to come from above like a spotlight and creates strong contrasts, especially between the pale skin of the dead man and the dark robes of the men. Nevertheless, the dead body seems to glow as if from the center, illuminating all the surrounding faces. As can be seen, for example, on the hand of Dr. Tulp, the casting of the shadow is not consistently accomplished. Here the shadow is cast sharply to the right, but with such a drastic incidence of light from the left, the back figures in particular would no longer be recognizable. We know the inner glow of a corpse from the most prominent corpse in art history: Jesus Christ himself. This expressed his holiness, related images were intended as a devotional invitation. However, a content-related association was certainly not meant. Rather, a new paradigm in relation to the human body is revealed here. Previously, the dead were often shown as if they had been transformed by it. With the advent of protantism and the scientific revolution on things, the view changed. The body became a "machine" whose individual parts could be analyzed. For this change, "The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp" is a vivid example.

Rembrandt - The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp

Oil on canvas, 1632, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague


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