The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp, completed in 1632,was one of Rembrandt’s first major commissions and is representative of his later works. Not only was this a major artistic achievement for Rembrandt, it was a great accomplishment for the science world as well and “marked Holland’s independence from the medical schools of the Catholic South generally and of schools in Italy in particular” (Hecksher 22). The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp was one of Rembrandt’s first group portraits and coincided with the new “social phenomenon” of Dutch men commissioning portraits depicting them together while celebrating (Hecksher 24). The members of the portrait were always shown in their finest attire while at leisure.
Anatomical dissections in the 1600s were open to the public and “anatomical theatres” were formed to allow people to come and watch these procedures. These dissections were a “social must” and attracted a wide audience. This particular dissection, performed by Dr. Tulp—the foreman of the Surgeons Guild, occurred on January 31, 1632, and lasted for approximately five days (Hecksher 24). The anatomies were annual events and this demonstration was Dr. Tulp’s second one. Rembrandt made the lecture a “dramatic” event and incorporated much tension into the portrait through gaze and body position.
Rembrandt painted the group portrait to exhibit a mood of calmness and allowing the viewer to forget what the subject matter actually is—the dissection of a human arm. Dr. Tulp gazes directly towards the audience instead of his fellow doctors and the arm he is dissecting creating an interaction between the viewer and the painting. This gaze gave Dr. Tulp an heir of confidence and legitimacy. We can assume Rembrandt incorporated this idea of the intense gaze in order to express the idea of “inner emotion” (Hecksher 22). The surrounding members of the painting are not depicted with a great deal of emotion, their faces lack any expression and are rendered in a superficial manner. Rembrandt used gaze to incorporate the seven other members of the painting as well as the audience. He treated each member of the painting as if it were an individual portrait, because group portrait was a more financially accommodating way to have one’s portrait done because they could split the cost amongst one another.
Rembrandt renders his figures in a realistic style of painting, showing the the members for what they are—men who paid to watch a dissection because it was a “social must.” The three men in the back of the painting are shown eagerly leaning towards the corpse and Dr.Tulp in order to get a better view of the dissection. However, upon closer inspection, one can see that they are each depicted with different expressions. Rembrandt shows each of their own facial expressions as they react to the lecture and the dissection of the human arm (Rosenberg 133). The two men shown across the table from Dr. Tulp convey a lack of interest. This is apparent by their body position and gaze. They are withdrawn from the corpse and looking away from Dr. Tulp (Rosenberg 135). The subject who is placed above the rest and farthest back is the only one Rembrandt showed looking directly at the audience.
Rembrandt took a Carravagesque approach to the lighting of this painting. There is no direct light source in the painting, instead a strong light pours in from outside the piece. Dr. Tulp has strong accent with his dark clothing, is harshly contrasted contrast with the ghostly white flesh of the corpse (Rosenberg 133). Rembrandt highlights Dr. Tulp’s hands, face, and color. He is also the only one shown wearing a hat which draws the eye in his direction, accentuating the figure. The seven men’s faces are sharply contrasted from their dark clothing and by their white collars. The room has a dark background which further emphasizes the men’s faces as well the white corpse. The deep red Rembrandt uses to depict the tendons and muscles of the arm is beautifully offset by the pale color used for the corpse’s lucid body.
As mentioned earlier, the audience of the dissection paid to attend just as they paid to be represented. It was a symbol of status and society to witness a dissection up close and especially to have a picture painted to signify your position at the dissection. These men were not doctors, other than Dr, Tulp, they were there because they paid to be and Rembrandt did a wonderful job showing just how they felt about the anatomy. As a way to record the presence of these men, Rembrandt wrote their names in the painting. The man painted directly to Dr. Tulp’s right holds the sacred list of names in his left hand. This man is also shown looking out to the audience, although not as intensely as the member in the back. Also, Rembrandt signed his name and the date, 1632, on the back wall.
The figures were depicted in a “pyramidal” composition. This essentially brings the individual portraits into more unified group. Rembrandt created three planes (Rosenberg 136). The three figures in the back represent the pyramid and the highest plane. These three men are sort of openly displayed in space; however, Rembrandt brings attention to his name and the date signed on the back wall. His signature is located extremely close to the highest point or man’s head. There is then the second level with the four men seated around the corpse. Finally, Rembrandt incorporated a horizontal plane with the corpse.
Images drawn from the Web Gallery of Art
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