The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

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The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt - The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.jpg
MediumOil on canvas
MovementBaroque painting, Dutch Golden Age painting
Dimensions216.5 cm × 169.5 cm (85.2 in × 66.7 in)
LocationMauritshuis, The Hague

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is a 1632 oil painting on canvas by Rembrandt housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, the Netherlands. It was originally created to be displayed by the Surgeons Guild in their meeting room.[1] The painting is regarded as one of Rembrandt's early masterpieces.

In the work, Nicolaes Tulp is pictured explaining the musculature of the arm to a group of doctors. Some of the spectators are various doctors who paid commissions to be included in the painting. The painting is signed in the top-left hand corner Rembrandt. f[ecit] 1632. This may be the first instance of Rembrandt signing a painting with his forename (in its original form) as opposed to the monogram RHL (Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden), and is thus a sign of his growing artistic confidence.


The event can be dated to 31 January 1632: the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, of which Tulp was official City Anatomist, permitted only one public dissection a year, and the body would have to be that of an executed criminal.[2]

Anatomy lessons were a social event in the 17th century, taking place in lecture rooms that were actual theatres, with students, colleagues and the general public being permitted to attend on payment of an entrance fee. The spectators are appropriately dressed for this social occasion. It is thought that the uppermost (not holding the paper) and farthest left figures were added to the picture later.[3]

Every five to ten years, the Surgeon's Guild would commission a portrait by a leading portraitist of the period; Rembrandt was commissioned for this task when he was 25 years old, and newly arrived in Amsterdam. It was his first major commission in Amsterdam. Each of the men included in the portrait would have paid a certain amount of money to be included in the work, and the more central figures (in this case, Tulp) probably paid more, even twice as much. Rembrandt's anatomical portrait radically altered the conventions of the genre, by including a full-length corpse in the center of the image (using Christ-like iconography) and creating not just a portrait but a dramatic mise-en-scène. Rembrandt's image is a fiction; in a typical anatomy lesson, the surgeon would begin by opening the chest cavity and thorax because the internal organs there decay most rapidly.

One person is missing: the Preparator, whose task was to prepare the body for the lesson. In the 17th century an important scientist such as Tulp would not be involved in menial and bloody work like dissection, and such tasks would be left to others. It is for this reason that the picture shows no cutting instruments. Instead we see in the lower right corner an enormous open textbook on anatomy, possibly the 1543 De humani corporis fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius.

The corpse[edit]

The corpse is that of the criminal Aris Kindt (alias of Adriaan Adriaanszoon), who was convicted for armed robbery and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed earlier on the same day of the scene.[4] The face of the corpse is partially shaded,[2] a suggestion of umbra mortis (shadow of death), a technique that Rembrandt was to use frequently.

The corpse's navel is formed from the letter R

The French art historian Jean-Marie Clarke suggests that the navel of the corpse has the shape of a capital R and connects this observation to the fact that Rembrandt worked intensively on his signatures in 1632, using three types consecutively before settling on the final, first name form in 1633.[5][6]

Kindt was discussed in the 1999 novel The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, and plays a significant role in Laird Hunt's 2006 novel The Exquisite. In her 2014 novel The Anatomy Lesson, author and journalist Nina Siegal tells the life story of Aris Kindt, based on documents about his criminal history that she discovered in the Amsterdam city archives.

Medical specialists have commented on the accuracy of muscles and tendons painted by the 26-year-old Rembrandt. It is not known where he obtained such knowledge; it is possible that he copied the details from an anatomical textbook. However, in 2006 Dutch researchers recreated the scene with a male cadaver, revealing several discrepancies of the exposed left forearm compared to that of a real corpse.[7][8]

In a 2007 study, the American artist and anatomist David J. Jackowe and his colleagues demonstrated that the mysterious white cord that courses along the ulnar aspect of the cadaver's carpus and little finger, long thought to be either an ulnar nerve variant or artistic error, is most likely the tendon of a variant forearm muscle, the accessory abductor digiti minimi.[9]

Related works[edit]

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman, painted by Rembrandt in 1656, was intended to be displayed in the Anatomical Hall in Amsterdam alongside The anatomy lesson of Tulp.[10] Deijman was Tulp's immediate successor in the post of praelector chirugic et anatomie. The painting was damaged by fire in 1723, and only a central fragment survives.

Around 1856 Édouard Manet visited The Hague and made a small oil on panel copy of The Anatomy Lesson. Broadly painted in a limited palette, Manet gave the painting to his physician, François Siredey.[11]

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (The University of Edinburgh Fine Art)

A less detailed copy of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by an unknown artist hangs in Edinburgh as part of The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection.

The Gross Clinic of 1875 and The Agnew Clinic of 1889 are paintings by the American artist Thomas Eakins which treat a similar subject, operations on live patients in the presence of medical students.

In 2010, Yiull Damaso created a parody of the painting depicting prominent South Africans. Nelson Mandela was the cadaver, Nkosi Johnson was the instructor, and the students were Desmond Tutu, F. W. de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Trevor Manuel, and Helen Zille.[12] The African National Congress condemned the work as disrespectful to Mandela, racist, and culturally insensitive to African taboos on depiction of living people as dead.[13]

The 2012 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Freeman[14] by Susan Dorothea White references the Rembrandt composition but renders each of the onlookers as an anatomical prosection and skeleton in a contemporary university laboratory; the enormous book is replaced by a computer screen and the background chart by a projection screen; the tendon orientation in the cadaver's left forearm is corrected.

In popular culture[edit]

The Body Snatcher (1945) quotes this scene when Dr. Macfarlane dissects a cadaver in front of his medical students.[15]

In Asterix and the Soothsayer (1972), Uderzo and Goscinny referenced the painting at the bottom of page 10, where the characters observe the disembowelment of a fish.

The 2011 video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution references the painting in both in-game portraits that can be found on the wall and in a certain cinematic trailer, featuring the main protagonist Adam Jensen as the cadaver as Dr. Nicolaes and his students study his charred and ruined arms, which in the actual story become amputated and replaced with mechanical limbs.

In the 2012 German film Barbara, there is a scene in which a doctor offers his interpretation of the painting to a colleague (the protagonist) when she points out the inaccuracy of Aris Kindt's left hand.

The painting is discussed by the narrator (a young man) and his mother during a visit to the Met in The Goldfinch, a 2013 novel by Donna Tartt.

2014's The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is a fictionalized account of the painting's creation and backstory, based on six years of historical research and archival documents about Aris Kindt's life.

Featured in episode 14 of the Korean drama Hush (2020).

Featured in the American horror film False Positive (2021).

The anatomist Gunther von Hagens always wears a black fedora in public, even when performing autopsies, in a tribute to Dr. Tulp's hat in the painting.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Spectacular bodies : the art and science of the human body from Leonardo to now. Martin Kemp, Marina Wallace, Hayward Gallery. London: Hayward Gallery. 2000. ISBN 978-1-85332-214-3. OCLC 44851393.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ a b Rachlin, Harvey (2007). Scandals, Vandals and Da Vincis. Chrysalis Books. pp. 55–61. ISBN 978-1-86105-878-2.
  3. ^ Delany, Samuel R. (2011). Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics--A Collection of Written Interviews. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. p. 98. ISBN 9780819571922.
  4. ^ O'Bryan, C. Jil (2005). Carnal Art. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 64–67. ISBN 978-0-8166-4322-6.
  5. ^ Michiel Koolbergen, "De R van Rembrandt. Waarheen wijst de tang van dokter Tulp?" Trouw, 31 January 1992, 13; this article appeared on the 360th anniversary of the original anatomy lesson by Tulp.
  6. ^ "" (PDF).
  7. ^ IJpma, Frank F.A.; Van De Graaf, Robert C.; Nicolai, Jean-Philippe A.; Meek, Marcel F. (2006). "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632): A Comparison of the Painting With a Dissected Left Forearm of a Dutch Male Cadaver" (PDF). J Hand Surg Am. 31 (6): 882–891. doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2006.02.014. PMID 16843145. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 September 2007.
  8. ^ IJpma FF, van de Graaf RC, Nicolai JP, Meek MF (2006). "[The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632) and the findings during dissection of the forearm of a cadaver: anatomical discrepancies]". Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 150 (50): 2756–65. PMID 17225789.
  9. ^ Jackowe DJ, Moore MK, Bruner AE, Fredieu JR (November 2007). "New insight into the enigmatic white cord in Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)". J Hand Surg Am. 32 (9): 1471–6. doi:10.1016/j.jhsa.2007.07.006. PMID 17996787.
  10. ^ Choulant, Ludwig; Frank, Mortimer; Garrison, Fielding Hudson; Streeter, Edward Clark (1852). History and bibliography of anatomic illustration in its relation to anatomic science and the graphic arts. The University of Chicago press.
  11. ^ Christie's Impressionist & Nineteenth Century Art. Catalog, p. 62, 24 June 1988.
  12. ^ Van Wyck, Lisa (9 July 2010). "Mandela 'autopsy' just not on". Mail & Guardian. Johannesburg. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  13. ^ Smith, David (9 July 2010). "Anger over Nelson Mandela autopsy painting". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
  14. ^ See Drawing on Anatomy website (retrieved 16 December 2017)
  15. ^ "Anatomy Master Class". Retrieved 19 August 2021.
  16. ^ "Gunther von Hagens". Archived from the original on 5 November 2013. Retrieved 29 July 2013.


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