Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp

March 1, 2018 bxhistorycom 0 Comments


Authored by Rebecca Harris, Editor-In-Chief of The Existential Millennial
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632), Mauritshuis Museum, Netherlands.

The Anatomy of an Era: Rembrandt’s, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp was commissioned by the Guild of Surgeons at Amsterdam in 1632. Since it’s display, it has provoked centuries of discussion over Rembrandt’s artistic decision to reject the traditional manner and composition of 17th century Dutch guild portraiture – especially dissection scenes – for a revolutionary and visceral style through compounding allusive narrative elements reinforced with theatric qualities that have made this scene, a dissection first and foremost, historically singular for its dynamism and paradoxical mystery that’s permeated more than 380 years of discourse. These qualities, while indicative of Rembrandt’s artistic education and practice of the time, perhaps represent Rembrandt’s debut as a fully formed and professional artist in the Dutch art market.

This analysis of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp will explore the context of the era, the Dutch Golden Age, as well as most compelling studies on Rembrandt’s masterpiece to highlight the genius artistry and intellectual dynamism Rembrandt exhibited and the meaning behind it. Rembrandt set a new standard of depth for guild portraitures, especially dissection scenes, that he continued to expand and experiment with throughout his career.

The Netherlands in the 17th century was rather progressive in its model of government, its social classes, and the prevalence of religious tolerance – comparatively speaking. Since the formation of the Dutch Republic in 1581, the Netherlands experienced the emergence of a national and cultural identity, of which, religious freedom and open trade were highly valued. The emphasis on these two foundational values opened new markets as well as created a new class – a class that had not only developed a taste for secular desires (such as knowledge, music, and art) and worldly goods (like paintings, books, and the exotic), but, more importantly, a class that also developed the purchasing power to pursue such desires and consume/collect such goods. It was in this economy and under this culture that Dutch artists and Dutch scientists were able to experiment and flourish without papal condemnation and financial poverty.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp embodies the cultural distinction the Dutch had created for themselves in being (1) a commissioned secular painting for (2) a surgeon’s guild – that is a guild practicing what, only a few hundred years before, would be considered witchcraft. Additionally, the scene being depicted – a “lesson” on anatomy by dissection – alone is expressive of Dutch progressivism and the appetite for expansion of economic, intellectual, and ethical attitudes of the Republic to fully splice any undertones during their time in the Holy Roman Empire.

The first human “anatomical dissection” was around 1550 “in a ‘dissecting’ room in the Saint Ursule- Convent, the seat of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons.”1 The practice of dissection in Amsterdam, prior to the Republic (but, also, in Rembrandt’s day), had questionable moral gray area with the clergy – Da Vinci had to hide his dissections. The Church had officially condemned the practice; however, later, perhaps as a reaction to the Counter-Reformation, the church became more liberal on their religious interpretation of dissections, allowing it only on the conditions that the body belonged to a criminal and, preferably, “was [from] outside the church.” Soon after, in 1578, there “was a change-over from a Catholic to a Protestant City Council. This new City Council gave the guild permission to have their dissecting room above the chapel of the old convent of Saint Margaret.”2 Thus, began the legacy of the guild depicted in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson.

While dissections were “originally aimed to students for educational purposes,” they became “events of some importance” that “were always performed in the winter and lasted for several days.”3 It is said that the dissections were held in the winter because “the low temperatures helped preserve the cadavers.”4 These public anatomic dissections were “open to both paying visitors and the Dutch elite alike.”5 In fact, “these events became so popular that the Guild commissioned an artist to immortalize the meetings and the anatomic dissection.”6 It was with these proceedings that the guild “generated substantial annual income from an ardently interested general public and paid for the Guild’s lavish banquets and perhaps some of the costs of portraiture.”7

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij by Aert Pietersz is the earliest known painted anatomy lesson – dating 1603 – and portrays the customary dissection scene where the abdomen is the subject of the lesson. Interestingly, “when it was finished, five persons on the painting had died as a consequence of the plague epidemic,” but their image was nevertheless persevered – in addition to their accomplishments and title.8 Perhaps this, especially in high risk careers like being a physician during times of plague, played a part in the inspiration – the intent – behind guild portraitures. Dutch art of the time was littered with vanitas – a stimulating feature scholars have found in this Anatomy Lesson.

Aert Pietersz, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz de Vrij, 1603, Amsterdam Museum, Netherlands

To accommodate the growing popularity of the dissections, “the anatomic theaters annually grew in size to better accommodate the important guests.”9 While not depicted in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson – a point that will be discussed later in this paper – these amphitheaters “consisted of a series of concentric circular wooden galleries and had a rotating table in the centre. Except for the front row there were no seats. The first gallery was for the members of the City Council and the inspectors of the Collegium Medicum and medical doctors older than 50 years. The second and third rows were for the other medical doctors, the members of the board of the guild of surgeons and master surgeons over 50. Rows 4, 5 and 6 were for the younger surgeons. The seventh and eighth rows were for the apprentices of the guild and the general public. On the first floor of the building a guild room was established. In this room the painted anatomy lessons were exhibited.”10

The order of the guild was run by a board, and “the board of the guild consisted of officers (‘Overlieden’).”11 Dissections or “the teaching of anatomy” were always performed by a professional medical doctor, who was appointed with the title of “praelector anatomiae.”12 However, the praelector anatomiae would never do the handling themselves. They would have an assistant to do the dirty work in the demonstration, as was formal tradition. The praelectors of anatomy in Amsterdam held a prominent role in Dutch society. “Some of them became mayors or played some other leading role in the affairs of the city,” and it was “generally accepted that the praelectores anatomiae commissioned the painters to produce a group portrait with the praelector as the central figure.”13 Thus, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and the commissioner and focal point of the portrait – praelector anatomiae, Dr. Tulp.

A Doctor, Pioneer, and Politician of the Dutch Golden Age

Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, (9 October 1593 – 12 September 1674), the fourth child of an Amsterdam merchant, was originally named Nicolaes Pieterszoon, also known as Claes Pieterszoon, which “was latinized to Nicolaus Petraeus, the name he used when he started his medical studies in Leiden, and the name on his medical school dissertation.”14 The final rendition of his name, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the “‘Tulp’ or ‘Tulpius’ came much later, added because of the Dutch tulip carved in stone on the façade of his house in the Keizersgracht.”15 Tulp’s legacy is this:

Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

“His most notable contributions to clinical neurology were probably his description and depiction of spina bifida and the ostensible first description (in 1641/2) of the “cluster headache,” later known as “Horton’s headache,” consisting of brief, recurrent, unilateral pain occurring in clusters and involving the temple, eye, and neck: (sometinies also known as “vascular headache” or “histamine cephalgia”)… He was reputed to be one of the first physicians to visit patients by coach, building a large, successful medical practice, and soon became prominent in municipal affairs as an alderman and one of Amsterdam’s 36 councilors. This fostered his appointment to the office of anatomical “praelector” of the Surgeon’s Guild in 1628; a position he held for 23 years, which required him to lecture on anatomy and surgery to the apprentice surgeons and to offer public commentary on dissections… He served as mayor four times… During a plague epidemic in 1635, three years after the dissection scene immortalized by Rembrandt, he compiled a pharmacopoeia for apothecaries.

His most important medical experiences were first published in three volumes in 1641 and enlarged to include a fourth volume in 1652, with later editions published in Amsterdam (1672 and 1685) and Leiden (1716). The four volumes contain over 200 case histories, including some original contributions to neurology, ophthalmology, and even tropical medicine with an early clinical description of beriberi (Thyssen, 1929; Jarcho. 1977; Koehler, 1996). Centuries before vitamin B1 deficiency was suspected in “polyneuritis.” (polyneuropathy in modern parlance)… Tulp’s contributions to anatomy are less known, although the ileocecal valve of the intestines bears his name and is still listed in dictionaries as the “valve of Tulpius,” and he was the first to find the lacteal vessels in man (already described in the dog by Ga.sparo Aselli).”16

Rembrandt, The Golden Boy of the Dutch Golden Age

slf_prtrt_wide-brimmed hat.jpg
Rembrandt, Self Portrait With A Wide-Brimmed Hat, 1632, Glasgow Museums, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow | Age: 26 | Painted the same year as The Anatomy 

It is very fitting that Dr. Tulp is centerpiece of one of the greatest works of art produced in the Dutch Golden Era by one of the greatest Dutch artists of all time, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 – October 4, 1669); two distinguished individuals that were equally impressive and significantly accomplished in their individual fields. It’s been suggested that Dr. Tulp made Rembrandt’s acquaintance through being the father-in-law to Jan Six, one of Rembrandt’s chief patrons and close friends. It has also been surmised that Dr. Tulp was possibly an intimate friend of Rembrandt’s or (at the very least) an object of admiration for the care he took in this commission. Rembrandt was was known for espousing his admiration for masters of their craft in his paintings through imitation and visual reverence by way of artistic allusions that’d only be obvious to a scholarly eye. For more on Rembrandt’s homages, cite Rembrandts’ Raising of the Cross (1633) and Rubens’ Elevation of the Cross (1610), and what art historians have concluded on two similar depictions and of Rembrandt’s consideration of Ruben’s celebrity. As with many 17th century Dutch paintings, Rembrandt’s paintings were packed with symbolism; even when his paintings were minimalist, the intellect of the visual language was complex. Rembrandt seemed to think of himself as a historian and an artist, and this can be seen in the way he constructed his images with such intention. From his portraits to dramatic scenes, it was as though he sought immortality through loading his art with subliminal messages. It is as though he wanted every piece slowly unwrapped, layer by comprehensive layer, for generations beyond the 17th century through developing an individualist style that would draw studies of his work with the same prestige as the artist of the works he had studied – artists that he drew his own inspiration from.

Rubens, Evaluation of The Cross (1610)


Rembrandt, Raising of The Cross (1633)

The level of consciousness (or aspirational awareness) that Rembrandt had on the legacy of his work or the celebrity of his artist is uncertain, but, given his devotion to self-portraiture and the meticulous artistic details he wove into each one, there exists strong arguments that Rembrandt may have held an awareness, if not the entrepreneurial spirit of the times, to commodify his art, his name, and his ego around this aura of drama and theater to match the tone of his work. It is on this idea of Rembrandt’s higher awareness – an intellectual aptitude – that many of the analysis in this article are grounded upon.

Rembrandt’s painted a self portrait center frame.

There have been two “key studies” of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, and both have “emphasized the contributions of Dr. Tulp, the major patron, to the painting’s iconography.” That is, they sought to put the painting into context through exploring Dr. Tulp’s legacy. First W. S. Heckscher (1958) – who “argues that Tulp requested Rembrandt to portray him as Vesalius reborn; he claims the artist depicted the doctor as a Magus who rids the community of evil by making the body of an executed criminal socially useful” – and the second is by W. Schupbach (1982) – and who “is also convinced that Tulp, a learned humanist, established the iconography involving the double messages of knowing God and knowing oneself.”17

The-Anatomy-Lesson-of-Dr-Nicolaes-Tulp-1632-d-3Heckscher’s argument is an enlightening one. It draws attention to the open book at the end of the dissection table – a first edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) by the prominent anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1 December 1514 – 15 October 1564). Heckscher claims that Tulp, “wishing to appear as the Vesalius redivivus of his age, requested that Rembrandt portray him engaged in the dissection of an arm.”18

Title page. The full title is Andreae Vesalii Bruxellensis, scholae medicorum Patauinae professoris, de Humani corporis fabrica Libri septem (Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, professor at the school of medicine at Padua, on the fabric of the Human body in seven Books). Andreas Vesalius

It was customary in the 16th century for depictions of anatomy lessons to appear on the title pages of medical books.19 The reference to the arm is rooted in Vesalius’ particular style of practice. As previously mentioned, despite the Rembrandt’s depiction in The Anatomy Lesson, dissections (the actual cutting of the corpse) were not performed by the praelector anatomiae but by lower assistants “for reasons of decorum, and because the church frowned on desecration of the body.”20 However, Vesalius, “determined to advance the knowledge of anatomy, dispensed with such an assistant and did his own dissections.”21 Thus, it is believed that in artistic depictions of dissection where the hand is undergoing study that there is an intention to allude to the legacy of Vesalius (see image below). It was this – Andreas Vesalius of Brussels – legacy, as Heckscher argues, that Dr. Tulp was seeking to parallel himself to in this commission, explaining why it was the hand being dissected and not the abdomen of the body as earlier (and later) dissection paintings traditionalized as was depicted in the title page of Andreae Vesalli Burxellensis and Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617).

Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)

I-B-1-02Furthermore, Tulp was not only “a careful observer and excellent anatomist, but a man of earnest religious thought.”22 Heckscher builds on this, through explaining how Tulp, a Calvinist, would have seen the body as a product of Divine creation, and how his practice – the practice of anatomy – supported by his faith, through a belief that it would lead to a “greater knowledge of God.”23 Heckscher goes even deeper to conclude that, given the cadavers were criminals, Tulp was portrayed in the painting as an instrument of God, “purging the Amsterdam community of evil through the dissection of the corpse of an executed criminal.24

Schupbach argues a different interpretation, but with the same foundation as Heckscher – he sought context of the painting within the context of Tulp’s life. He explores Tulp’s writings to understand more about his motivations. He considered Tulp’s writings to be “Christianized versions of Galen’s ideas.”25 Therefore, on the decision to depict the dissection of a hand and not the abdomen as was tradition, Schupbach construes that Tulp directed Rembrandt on this with a conscious desire to demonstrate because “both Galen and Tulp extol the human hand as a monument to God’s wisdom, an instrument that permits humans to create civilization.”26




Later comments on the remarkable detail – the anatomical precision – sprouted from Scherer (1990) and Gross (1998) who questioned “whether this [Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp] or any other dissections were sketched from life.27 They supported the opinion of Saunders and O’Malley (1950) who claimed Rembrandt’s nearly perfect depiction was not from his own visual study of the dissection, but sketched from some other reference material. This also calls into question the heated debate among scholars on if Rembrandt was even in attendance at the anatomy lesson as the “portrayal of the flexor of the band” plate 67:2 in Vesalius De Fabrica is incredibly similar to Rembrandt’s rendition that seems “unlikely to be a mere coincidence.”28

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies or the arm and the hand (1510)

Schupbach readily agrees with them on this case, and believes the reason for why Dr. Tulp might have preferred this model to that of one from Rembrandt’s artistic composition from life. He concludes, simply, that Tulp may simply have “been attracted to the aesthetic beauty of the digital muscles and tendons” that had been “previously depicted by Leonardo and then by others,” suggesting it was simply for a contemporary aesthetic style.29


From this, establishing Dr. Tulp’s intentions for the spliced hand, Schupbach decodes a deeper meaning to the painting’s message, and it involves knowing God and knowing oneself. He argues “double emblems are conveyed as the guild member at the top of the composition gestures towards the corpse, and thus ‘points out the obvious mortality of man, while Dr. Nicolaes Tulp reveals the more elusive element that does not die,’” a “paradoxical iconography” to contemporary metaphysical poetry that was in circulation at the time in Amsterdam.30

While Hecksher and Shupbach made excellent contributions to study and expanded comprehension of the iconographical context captured in this 16th century guild portrait, it did so from the perspective of the Tulp and his creative influence without considering that of Rembrandt’s. It would certainly make sense that Tulp would have a say in the composition and style of the portrait he had commissioned. However, he was not the artist but the subject; thus, he and his vision were subject to the artistic interpretation of Rembrandt. While it was his first major commission, Rembrandt was an educated and intelligent artist, and given Tulp was considered an intimate friend of Rembrandt’s, would Tulp not be open to Rembrandt’s artistic creativity? It is on this point that the following will give credence to this assumption:

Dolores Mitchell provides “an analysis of the visual language, an examination of other Rembrandt works close in time, and a consideration of inherited schemata and Reformation themes.”31 While simple and, yet, arguably more broad, her approach is rich and more tolerable to subscribe to. Mitchell first calls attention to the light, and questions: “What, for example, can one deduce from contrasts of dark versus light, high versus low, joined shapes versus an isolated one? What is the effect of representing the corpse in such a visually privileged manner, so flooded with light and so dominant in the foreground?32 With her simple approach, she conducts a thoughtful query on famous piece. On light she says this:


“Light from a high, unseen source illuminates the corpse which is painted a white mixed with ochre and gray. Despite the white collars and ruffs that set off their faces, Tulp and the guild members are predominantly dark in value. Since light in the Netherlandish tradition connotes sanctity and enlightenment, and darkness is associated with evil and spiritual blind- ness, it is curious that the corpse is so conspicuously light, and members of an Amsterdam elite so very dark. Such an effect might have been avoided through different positioning of the men or the book, more cast shadows on the corpse, or by draping the body more. Kindt, a large, light form in the foreground, carries the lower third of the canvas. Although one man is seated in front of the dissecting table, his dark clothing causes him to recede and the corpse to project visually, so that the dead man seems very close to the viewer. The verticality of the living figures, two seated, the others standing, contrasts with the near horizontality of the corpse, setting up an opposition of active forces versus passivity. Formal elements establish a contrast between those who act and he upon whom they act. As Mieke Bal has stated, the painting represents “the social theater of mastery.33

From this incredible observation and analysis, Mitchell arrives at the context of the way in which the figures are clothes and proceeds to delegate the possible symbolism behind them, claiming:



Another dialectic occurs between clothed bodies and an almost naked one. Guild members wear well-tailored black and brown clothing decorated with costly pleated ruffs. Dr. Tulp is distinguished from the group by his high-crowned, wide- brimmed hat, substantial chair, and the niche behind him. He wears a cloak over a doublet with knotted laces at the waist, white cuffs and a collar decorated with lace. His moustache and pointed beard are well-groomed, as are those of the other guild members. Any physical imperfections these men might possess are concealed by voluminous clothing. They appear overdressed, protected-almost armored. Such clothing and grooming signifies that these men have stable careers and settled existences, with wives and servants to tend to their needs.

“By contrast, the corpse possesses no clothing, except for a white loin cloth. Aris Kindt no longer even “owns” his body, which is the property of the state and is being dismembered. Is ironic that the thief’s crime against private property has resulted in his loss of body ownership, and has allowed Tulp and the guild members to acquire it. His imperfections, stunted legs and big feet, are fully revealed. Wispy, unshaped hair on his upper lip and chin speak of low social rank. While the living appear well “put together,” the corpse is being taken apart; the integrity of his left arm has already been violated. Tulp and the guild members merge into a large dark shape because of their black and brown clothing and the shadowy background. Their visual linkage into a many headed body signifies shared interests.”34


Mitchell then asserts an analysis on the body as an overlooked corpse and how the figures around contrast with it, in addition to how they interact or refuse to interact with it:


The corpse, by contrast is one of a kind – truly solitary. The animated gestures and expressions of the living contrast with the stiffness of the body whose muscles show traces of rigor mortis (normally gone within twenty-four hours of death). The features of the living are easier to discern than those of the corpse-a shadow falls across the eyes, the bottom of the jaw is obscured by the curve of the chest, and one views the face from an oblique angle (the abrupt transition between head and chest might imply props under the body, and of course, the neck is broken). The pallor of the corpse contrasts with the ruddy complexions of the living-the two men who bend over him are especially rosy-cheeked and vital looking. Power contrasts decisively with powerlessness.35

Perhaps most compelling is Mitchell examination acknowledging two points: (1) This is a work about not touching a body; (2) This is a work about not looking at a body. This disassociation with the body falls in line with earlier guild portraits, like that of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz.

On the first point, Mitchell identifies that none, not even Dr. Tulp, touches the body directly – he “manipulates the flayed hand with forceps…” while “he raises his other hand high enough above the corpse for his gesture to be read as one of avoidance.”[note] ibid. [/note] An interesting point to note, given how the of the era, as previously stated, had the tradition of having an assistant cut the body and not the praelector anatomiae to separate the profession and practitioner from the church’s condemnation of “desecrating the body.” This interpretation would be supported by the historical context, especially from the perspectives of Hecksher and Shupbach, who decipher the painting from the patron’s perspective, and it’s very plausible Tulp and his colleagues would want to be portrayed as above or unaffiliated with the “dirty work” of anatomy but would still like to be commemorated for their knowledge of the anatomy.



On the second point, Mitchel make the observation that, in addition but also separate from, not touching the body, the figures seem to be absorbed in anything else but looking at it as well. Again, Tulp at the forefront, “is the only man who is turned towards the corpse, but he does not look down at the body… Similar ambiguities characterize the gaze of the man in the left foreground.”36 She brilliantly brings to attention with thoughtful consideration through addressing each figures composition and expression, detail how “the man who holds the list, and the one at the apex of the composition, appear to look at observers, while the eyes of the man closest to Tulp’s arm appear unfocused, as if he is contemplating the doctor’s words. The man just above the corpse, and the man above him, stare at the flayed arm. None of these characters see the corpse as a whole – but, from a high vantage point, the viewer of the painting does.”37


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Lastly, Mitchell conducts a survey of the corpse, and what allusions Rembrandt may have derived from his education as a historical painter and how he implemented his intellect into his style. Scholars have remarked on how astonishingly well the body is drawn – a little foreshadowed, but otherwise perfect. Mitchell point out how, in earlier art, “representations of people clustered around and acting upon a passive body are found in many religious subjects, such as martyrdoms, the betrayal or tormenting of Christ, depositions and entombment.”38

Albrecht Durer, Descent from the Cross, 1507

She cites Durer’s engraving Descent from the Cross (1507), and how “the motif of John bending over Christ’s head is similar to that of a guild member leaning over the corpse’s head in the Rembrandt.39 Referencing the same engraving, she draws similarities between how “Mary faces Christ and lifts his arm-Dr. Tulp faces the corpse and lifts muscles in its flayed arm. There is a book, presumably a Bible in Diuer’s foreground, and a book, presumably an anatomy, in Rembrandt’s foreground.40 Mitchell also calls to attention a similar 1630s drawing by Rembrandt – Entombment (1634) | see image below  – for how closely the body of Christ resembles that of the body of the corpse in The Anatomy Lesson, but notes important differences that further suggest Rembrandt’s artistic vision may have been more influential than Tulp’s desire for commemoration, such as how “followers touch Christ’s body lovingly and look at it-one person turns back to gaze at his face” where as “the negation of touch and sight in The Anatomy of Dr Tulp becomes more obvious after considering their emphasis by Rembrandt in his Entombment drawing of two years before.”41


Rembrandt, Entombment (1634)

Mitchell’s critical visual analysis of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson presents a stunning assortment of comprehensive as well as extremely enlightening interpretations that are supported by the historical context and even earlier works of surgeons guilds. For example, this disassociation with the body falls in line with earlier guild portraits, like that of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaen Egbertsz, where similarities and difference between the typical guild portrait and Rembrandt’s guild portrait are most observable. Mitchell’s analysis even broaches the topic that is possibly most contentions among scholars, and that was on the issue presented earlier on Rembrandt’s portrait being a depiction from life – an actual public anatomy – or an imagined scene Rembrandt may not have even witnessed.

The issue of the hand’s anatomical perfection being tied to a pre-existing model Rembrandt referred to in its entirety has already been mentioned. Additionally, the inaccuracies of the positioning and role assignment – members of the guild would never sit so close to the body nor would the lecture handle the cutting of the body – and the section of the body that is being dissected. What follows is the issue of the setting. The background should reflect the huge amphitheater in which these lessons were conducted and constructed specifically for, but, instead, there’s a huge discrepancy between the setting portrayed and the historic accounts of anatomy lessons. Instead, as Mitchell notes, the setting is generalized “without a balustrade to separate the operating area from the audience, and lacking the skeletons and other paraphernalia that were usually in anatomy theaters.”42 Schupbach supports the position that Rembrandt did not intended to depict a true public anatomy lesson, but instead seeks to “presents to us the artistic glorification of Science in the light of the Divine Idea of Life, and more particularly of that Idea as embodied at it highest in the natural art-work of the human organism.43


W. Hastie is another scholar on the Anatomy Lesson, and his words fit beautifully into the conclusion of this analysis as well as summarizes the mission of this exploration by encompassing the total and awe-inspiring accomplishments of this work – the celebration and memorialization of the Dutch Golden Era:

Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp represents Modern Thought in its proper activity, and in all its freedom, sociality and joy, as the explorer of the world of Nature, and the discoverer of the Divine Art embodied in it, as the light and power of a new and higher world. In it Science, Theology, and Art meet, and are harmonized in absolute unity… and as Art catches the evanescent wonder of the moral organism before it dissolves again into formless dust, it is reflected and embodied for all time and for all eyes in a permanent form of beauty. In its reflected light the ardent souls of the younger generation, appropriating the new scientific consciousness and securing its continuity, are kindled into fresh enthusiasm and energy for the purpose and duty of life.”44

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp is inarguably the most historically groundbreaking of all Rembrandt’s historical portraitures and perhaps even of early 17th century Dutch art; thus, establishing that Rembrandt, at the youthful age of twenty-six, memorialized himself, his era, and his culture through his remarkable ability to create a fitting drama and depth for a genre painting through mastery of intellectual iconography – borrowed and/or reinvented – that had never been attempted before in Dutch guild commissions. For the boldness of his aspirations as a Dutch artist to experiment with his artistry on his first major commission, Rembrandt inspired countless viewers, scholars, and artists across the globe, perpetuating an immortalizing study of his work, and consequently, the study of the context of his lifetime; therefore inspiring interest in Dutch history – memorializing Rembrandt as an artist, a historian, and, depending upon the interpretation, a 17th century Dutch philosopher.

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Works Cited

Di Matteo, B., Tarabella, V., Filardo, G. et al. “Nicolaes Tulp: The Overshadowed Subject in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” Clin Orthop Relat Res (2016) 474: 625. doi:10.1007/s11999-015-4686-y.

Hastie, W. “REMBRANDT’S LESSON IN ANATOMY.” The Contemporary Review, 1866-1900 60, (08, 1891): 271-277.

Mitchell, Dolores. “Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”: A Sinner among the Righteous.” Artibus Et Historiae 15, no. 30 (1994): 145-56. doi:10.2307/1483478.

Kruger, Lawrence. “The scientific impact of Dr. N. Tulp, portrayed in Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson.” Journal Of The History Of The Neurosciences 14, no. 2 (June 2005): 85-92. MEDLINE with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed December 16, 2016).

Baljet, B. “The painted Amsterdam anatomy lessons: Anatomy performances in dissecting rooms?” Annals of AnatomyAnatomischer Anzeiger. Elsevier, (January 200): doi:10.1016/S0940-9602(00)80114-4.

Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp was last modified: March 8th, 2018 by bxhistorycom
  1. B. Baljet, “The painted Amsterdam anatomy lessons: Anatomy performances in dissecting rooms?,” Annals of Anatomy – Anatomischer Anzeiger. Elsevier, (January 200): doi:10.1016/S0940-9602(00)80114-4.
  2.  Di Matteo, V. Tarabella, Filardo, G. “Nicolaes Tulp: The Overshadowed Subject in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” Clin Orthop Relat Res (2016) 474: 625. doi:10.1007/s11999-015-4686-y
  3.  Baljet, “The painted Amsterdam anatomy lessons: Anatomy performances in dissecting rooms?”
  4.  B. Di Matteo, “Nicolaes Tulp: The Overshadowed Subject in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”
  5. Ibid.
  6. ibid.
  7.   Lawrence Kruger, “The scientific impact of Dr. N. Tulp, portrayed in Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson,’” Journal Of The History Of The Neurosciences 14, no. 2 (June 2005): 85-92. MEDLINE with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed December 16, 2016)
  8.  Baljet, “The painted Amsterdam anatomy lessons: Anatomy performances in dissecting rooms?”
  9.  B. Di Matteo, “Nicolaes Tulp: The Overshadowed Subject in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”
  10.  Baljet, “The painted Amsterdam anatomy lessons: Anatomy performances in dissecting rooms?”
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid
  13. ibid.
  14.  Lawrence Kruger, “The scientific impact of Dr. N. Tulp, portrayed in Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’” 
  15. ibid.
  16. ibid.
  17. ibid.
  18. ibid.
  19. ibid.
  20. ibid.
  21. ibid.
  22.  W Hastie, “REMBRANDT’S LESSON IN ANATOMY,” The Contemporary Review, 1866-1900 60, (08, 1891) 
  23.  Dolores Mitchell, “Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”: A Sinner among the Righteous”
  24. ibid.
  25. ibid.
  26. ibid.
  27. ibid.
  28. ibid.
  29. ibid.
  30. ibid.
  31. ibid.
  32. ibid.
  33. ibid.
  34. ibid.
  35. ibid.
  36. ibid.
  37. ibid.
  38. ibid.
  39. ibid.
  40. ibid.
  41. ibid.
  42. ibid.
  44. ibid.

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