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[...] Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson - yes, I, too, was stunned. Do you remember the flesh tones? Earth, bare earth, especially the feet [...]

Also, there is sometimes - always, really - a contrast between the tone of the dress and that  of the face.

Vincent van Gogh writing to his brother Theo

The famous painting showing the anatomy lesson was created in 1632. Rembrandt was 26 at the time.

He had been settled in Amsterdam for the past year. Before that time, he had already spent two years in this teeming city, as a pupil of Pieter Lastman, who passed on to him Caravaggio’s technique of chiaroscuro. When there was nothing further to be learnt from the Amsterdam master, Rembrandt had gone back to his native Leiden. He was noticed by Constantijn Huygens, a statesman in the service of the House of Orange and a great art lover, who recommended him to Uylenburgh, an art dealer in Amsterdam. Uylenburgh had a keen eye for talent, and immediately passed on to Rembrandt Professor Nicolaes Tulp’s commission for a group portrait.

In 17th-century Holland, group portraits were an immensely popular genre - they were a social institution, the symbol of an up-and-coming middle class. After thirty years of war to shake off the Spanish yoke, the seven northern provinces, including Holland, had gained their independence and established their right to trade freely. Politically, the United Provinces were a fairly loose federation; denominationally, they had embraced Calvinism; economically, they were going from strength to strength, largely as a result of their trading links with the East Indies and the West Indies. By the middle of the 17th century, half of Europe’s trade was carried by Dutch ships, which were famed and feared for their ability to transform themselves into men-of-war at a moment’s notice. In 1650, the annual yield of the shares in the two India Companies was 500%. There were flourishing factories and trading posts in the Indian ocean, in Java, Formosa, and Japan. The ortuguese had been expelled from Malacca and Colombo. The West Indian Company was trading with Africa; it had establishments in Brazil, Guyana, and in the West Indies; and it had even gained a footing on the North American continent, where it had founded New Amsterdam, which was later ceded to the British in exchange for Surinam, and renamed New York by its new owners.

Following their meteoric rise to fortune, the burghers of Amsterdam lived well, and loved to see their life reflected in art.

Well-to-do families, notable persons, the officers of guilds and civic guards commissioned large numbers of group portraits, which provided a livelihood for a multitude of artists. It was also the done thing to be shown in the company of well-known people who moved in the corridors of power. The leading citizens would pay - and often pay very handsomely - for the privilege of being included in official group portraits.

Nicolaes Tulp was one of these people that took centre stage in 17th-century Amsterdam. He was 39 in the year the Anatomy Lesson was painted.

He was a man of learning, a surgeon and an anatomist. For 4 years, he had been Praelector Anatomiae at the Guild of Surgeons. His treatises on monsters were famous. He was the first to describe the ileocaecal valve, although credit for the discovery later, wrongly, went to the Swiss Bauhin. However, Tulp was, first and foremost, a political animal: he was city treasurer eight times, and four times burgomaster of Amsterdam.

Tulp had decided to be shown in his natural environment, giving an anatomy lesson. Most of the seven other figures in the painting were wealthy middle-class citizens of Amsterdam. Only two of the observers were physicians.

An opportunity for a dissection arose on 16 January, 1632.

The date can be pinpointed very accurately: the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons would allow only one public dissection a year; the body to be dissected had to be that of an executed criminal. The winter months were a useful time, since the bodies would keep better during the demonstrations that usually went on for several days. A man called Aris Kindt had been hanged for armed robbery. Immediately after the execution, his body was taken to the Anatomy Theatre of the Guild of Surgeons.

In Rembrandt’s painting, the surrounding scenery is barely visible. Behind the figures, everything recedes into shadows through which one can vaguely discern a stone archway, a set of rules posted on a wall, an open tome - probably an anatomy treatise, perhaps the one by Vesalius published in 1543. The lesson that is being given is not only for the benefit of the observers in the picture. Professor Tulp is looking beyond those crowding around the dissection table, towards an audience that the spectator can readily imagine. Rembrandt, of course, is there as well. The composition of the painting is a stroke of genius. Group portraits were produced in large numbers in the 17th century; however, they were usually stiff and formal. In the Dutch culture of egalitarianism, great care was taken to ensure that all the subjects in the picture were placed in the same way, so that no one was particularly prominent. In order not to offend anybody, all the figures were grouped in strict symmetry. To study the established style, one need only look at the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastian Egbertsz, painted by Thomas de Keyzer in 1619. On either side of the mid-line (marked by the skeleton), the figures are arranged in two perfectly symmetrical triangles. The object of the anatomy lesson, the skeleton, is merely a bit of decor. This painting was at the back of Rembrandt’s mind. He was determined to break with this code of static uniformity, without, however, making any one member of the group more prominent than the others - with the obvious exception of Tulp himself, who had to be shown as the person in control of the event depicted. On the right-hand side of the picture, the anatomist’s figure is inscribed within a pyramid surmounted by a wide-brimmed black hat, the symbol of his high social standing. The observers, who counterbalance the overpowering figure of the anatomist, are arranged in two intersecting geometrical patterns - a pyramid, whose summit is the figure that towers above the others (and who is probably standing on a stool), and an oblique diamond shape, one of whose corners is marked by the observer who holds a piece of paper with the names of all the sitters. This diamond pattern draws the scene into the middle ground, while life and variety are added by the direction of the gaze of the observers, the way they hold their heads, and the frames provided by the big white ruffs. In the centre, the dead man’s body is driven like a wedge among the mass of the living, an impression that is enhanced by the attitude of the observer leaning forward and casting a shadow over the dead man’s face. Thanks to this composition, the two protagonists in the picture are the cadaver and the anatomist. Rembrandt’s handling of light and contrast is equally remarkable: while, in the de Keyzer painting, the skeleton was only a device to enable the individual portraits to be grouped, Rembrandt makes the body the centrepoint of his picture, and uses it to heighten the drama of the occasion. As in many of his other paintings, especially in those of the second half of his career (The Jewish Bride is a case in point), Rembrandt makes the figures in the picture a source of light, endowing them with intrinsic luminosity. In the Anatomy, the light emanates from the cadaver. There must, of course, be an extrinsic light source as well, to the left of the picture - witness the deep shadows cast on the ruffs by the observers’ heads. However, this serves to create a first contrast across the picture, between the dark mass of Tulp’s figure and the weakly lit pyramid of the onlookers, to emphasize yet more strongly the psychological dominance of Professor Tulp. The second contrast is layered from the bottom of the picture upwards, between the dark assembly of the living and the cold ivory light emanating from the corpse, the body that has been opened to reveal the structures Tulp is teaching about. The light around the cadaver gradually fades into the shadows above, creating an enclosed and yet vague space, a malleable space in which the bodies form a mouldable entity. The dead man’s body is stiff and still - the observers’ bodies are in motion.

This is only to be expected. Like all of Rembrandt’s paintings, the Anatomy Lesson has both movement and the depth of human understanding.

Rembrandt himself is outside the picture. At the time of the painting, he was still quite young. He was moving in a different world from the one he had grown up in: his clients were well-to-do burghers, and men of science, like Dr. Tulp, the anatomist. It has even been said1 that he did not understand what it was that he was painting, that he had not fully grasped what Professor Tulp’s demonstration was about. However, that may be doing Rembrandt an injustice: below, we shall be looking at what it was that the anatomist was trying to convey.

Regardless of the content of the lesson, Rembrandt was concerned with the effect that Professor Tulp’s message was having on the anatomist’s audience. The composition of the picture, and the subtle handling of contrast within the group of observers, define two movements: one movement into the depth of the picture space, from in front backwards and upwards; and one movement directed downwards. This double movement imparted to the group by the deformation of the geometrical patterns that make up the composition expresses both the zeal and fascination of the observers, and their fright at the discovery of the body and its mysteries. The men watching the dissection look anxious. Their faces show a keen interest, but, equally, a deep, dull unease.

In the 17th century, Amsterdam and the United Provinces were among Europe’s foremost scientific centres. The quest for knowledge, and for anatomical knowledge in particular, was not seen to be in conflict with religion. At the same time, in Italy, Galileo was standing trial for his views.

In Leiden, Descartes had sought refuge in search of freedom of thought and freedom of movement; it was there that he published his famous Discourse, in French. In the Protestant countries, there was no argument about the position of the sun.... Even so, the dissection of a human body was not seen as a natural act. Dissection was not to become an established practice until the 18th century. Before then, permission was granted only sparingly, and only to well-known members of the universities, who would be allowed to perform dissections for teaching purposes or as public demonstrations. The anatomists would comment what they were doing; they would check their findings against the Fabrica, Vesalius’ masterly textbook, whose second edition ushered in the age of modern, observational and descriptive anatomy, and marked the final break with Galen’s, and ultimately Aristotle’s, speculative theory of final cause.

So, are we actually looking at an anatomy lesson? Is Tulp showing something new to his amazed audience?

Is the painting simply about Tulp “exposing with his forceps the object of his demonstration, viz. the muscles of the fingers and their blood supply, emphasizing the point that he is making with the movement of his left hand”2?

Allow me to suggest how I read Rembrandt’s painting. My analysis is based upon several clues:

(1) This is not an anatomy lesson in the 17th-century sense of the term: the body has not been “cut up” (which is the actual meaning of “anatomy” - from Greek ana- meaning up and temnein, to cut).

Anatomy lessons always started with a study of the abdominal viscera, followed by that of the chest contents. This was done for a practical reason, since the viscera were the most perishable parts of the body. Rembrandt, incidentally, painted another anatomy lesson, commissioned by Tulp’s successor at the Guild of Surgeons; in this painting, the anatomist is shown examining the brain of a cadaver that has been eviscerated. In the Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp, however, the body is intact. Only the left forearm has been cut open. Thus, Tulp wanted to show a phenomenon of particular interest to him, without going through all the usual stages of a teaching dissection.

(2) In his right hand, Professor Tulp is holding a forceps lifting up a muscle belly; from its superficial position, its division into several tendons, and its insertion on the middle phalanges of the fingers, the muscle is readily identifiable as the flexor digitorum superficialis. Normally, an anatomist trying to demonstrate an anatomical structure to his students would use a pointer (the instrument used by Dr. Egbertsz in de Keyzer’s painting). The way the muscle has been picked up with forceps suggests that Tulp is not merely showing a structure.

(3) Tulp is holding his left hand in an odd way. Some commentators have thought that he is emphasizing a point. However, on closer scrutiny, the movement is quite complex: the wrist is in extension, the metacarpophalangeal joints are straight, while the proximal interphalangeal joints are flexed. The result is an unnatural position of the hand and the fingers. I think that Tulp’s left hand holds the key to the meaning of the anatomy lesson: Tulp is deliberately holding his hand like this, in order to show that pulling on the muscle that he is holding with the forceps will cause the same movement of flexion in the proximal interphalangeal joints of the cadaver. In other words, Tulp is demonstrating the action of the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle by combining a voluntary movement of his hand and a demonstration of the muscle action in the cadaver. However, it may be objected, if that is so, why did Rembrandt not show the cadaver’s fingers flexed?

This obviously would have made the lesson clearer. However, it would also have deprived the painting of that mark of Rembrandt’s genius, the suggestion of movement.

Having both actions occurring at the same time would have spoilt the dynamics of the scene. As the picture stands, one can imagine that Tulp is showing the phenomenon of interphalangeal joint flexion with his left hand, while preparing to pull on the muscle in the cadaver to explain how the voluntary movement is caused. There are other clues to support this hypothesis. Let us look at the two characters in the front row, the ones that seem to take the greatest interest in Professor Tulp’s lesson, and who may well be the two physicians known to have been in the audience. The one on the left, whose face is shown almost in profile, is looking intently at the forearm of the cadaver; the one on the right is gazing straight at Tulp’s left hand. The way these two observers are looking at two different objects signals what is going to happen just after the moment that has been caught, and fixed in time, by Rembrandt’s painting: the cadaver’s fingers are going to move as the muscle is being pulled by the forceps. Thus, by making two people look in different directions, Rembrandt suggests something that is not just a point in time, but which occupies a certain period of time. As a final clue, the man looking at Tulp is clutching his chest with his fingers flexed, as if mirroring the gesture of Tulp’s left hand. With this reading, the picture assumes a different dimension: this is not a static, descriptive anatomy lesson, but a lesson in physiology and functional anatomy. It also displays one of the essential qualities of Rembrandt’s genius: the depiction of movement.

The movement of the group, strongly suggested by the composition of the painting and the arrangement of the sitters, could be summed up as one of wonder at what is being demonstrated by the anatomist - the action of the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle on the proximal interphalangeal joints.

The message should be clear:

Far from not understanding the point of Professor Tulp’s anatomy lesson, Rembrandt has grasped its very essence. His painting, produced at a time of great historical, artistic, sociological, and epistemological developments, epitomizes the spirit of 17th-century Holland. Indeed, the artist’s concern with movement makes this painting the epitome of 17th-century European thinking: movement was central to the ideas of Descartes, Gassendi, Galileo, Leibniz, Newton - and Rembrandt.

In 1632, Rembrandt was only 26 years old. He may not even have known just what a masterpiece he was creating.

But is it not the hallmark of genius that the artist should be creating works of genius without being aware of it?

1 P Descargues. Rembrandt. J.C. lattès 1990. p 71.

2 ibid. p 71.

(Transl KRMB)