Rembrandt (Dutch 1606-1669)

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Reference Type:
This painting, in which Dr. Nicolaes Tulp conducts an anatomy lesson, is important in both the history of medicine and the history of art and culture. Anatomical lessons were a form of entertainment at this time. Since they did not occur frequently, admission was highly sought after and attendance prestigious. Consequently, this group of well-to-do men—some of them undoubtedly medical professionals—commissioned Rembrandt to paint their portrait with Dr. Tulp. Their degree of interest in the actual lesson varied: a few watch and listen avidly, while others seem more interested in being represented from a good angle. In case someone were not recognized, the sheet of paper held by the man in the center lists all of their names. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1593-1674) was a physician, surgeon, anatomist, and civic leader (serving as mayor and judge) in Amsterdam. He was appointed Praelector in Anatomy to make public dissections more regular and also took on apprentices in surgery. He was interested in drug therapy, and assisted with the production of the Dutch Pharmacopoea. In this painting, he is set apart from the group by his elegant hat and the fact that he stands alone on the right side of the painting. He manages to nonetheless balance the composition through his dark attire and the force of his personality. The portrait reflects two remarkable cultural shifts that enhanced the importance of medicine. First, it was created at a time when cities and the middle class were rising, which encouraged secular concerns—artisans, tradesmen, and professionals wondered how a person might prosper in the world of the living. Second, the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century led to a significant expansion of literacy and created a large market for books aimed at a middle class urban audience, including novels and “how to” guides. Middle class literacy furthered interest in the immediate world and secular values. In this world, science competed with religion to provide explanations, and the body became an object of study in addition to a work of God. Physicians as students and interpreters of science gained authority and prestige in a society previously dominated by clergy and aristocrats. Public dissections at this time were usually performed on the corpses of criminals, in part as a deterrent to criminal behavior. In this case, the body is that of a 28-year-old man named Adriaen Adriaenszoon, who had been arrested the first time in 1623, for theft. After a series of additional crimes, he was hanged for attempted murder on January 28, 1632. The dissection in the painting was performed on the 31st. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith
Art of Medicine
History of Medicine
Mauritshuis, The Hague