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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, (Mauritshuis, Den Haag). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague, and we're looking at one of Rembrandt's most famous paintings. This is the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. - [Voiceover] This is a typical group portrait, an important type of painting in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. This happens to be the Guild of Surgeons, and regularly they would commission a group portrait to hang in the public space where their guild would meet. - [Voiceover] Once a year, there would be a public dissection where some element of the body would be explicated, and that's what we're seeing here. Now this is not true to life. In reality, this would have been a much more public event. It's very likely that the chief surgeon, in this case Dr. Tulp, would not have been performing the actual dissection, but would have had an assistant do this. But what's so remarkable here is that Rembrandt is reinventing the group portrait. Now it's important to remember that Holland, in the 17th century, was largely a Protestant nation. The church was no longer a major patron. So artists looked to the professional and middle classes for patronage, and that's what we have here. - [Voiceover] And the professional and middle classes and merchant classes looked to artists to create a new kind of art that would meet their needs, and in this case, the need to show off the profession of these men, and specifically in this case, the brilliance of Dr. Tulp. - [Voiceover] I think it's hard to imagine that for so much of history prior to this painting, that as a culture we had so little understanding of the human body. We begin to reinvestigate it during the Renaissance, and then here in the Baroque era, we begin to impose a scientific investigation on the human body and understand it again. - [Voiceover] Leonardo and Michelangelo dissected bodies pretty much in secret so they could understand how the body worked and represent it in their paintings, but up in the north, in the Dutch Republic, doctors and artists were able to do this more openly. That book at the feet of the cadaver is a reminder of this renewed interest in human anatomy. They're dissecting a man who had just been hanged. He's a criminal. - [Voiceover] Look at the way that Rembrandt has taken what was a genre of painting where men's faces were often simply aligned, very much like a contemporary class portrait, which was meant to be a documentation, and he's created out of that, not only a sense of individuality, but a sense of a shared moment. - [Voiceover] A narrative story that unfolds, each of these figures doing something slightly different, paying attention to slightly different things. Then you have this wonderful varied light with the most light falling on the cadaver and on Dr. Tulp. - [Voiceover] He's lifting up the tendons and exposing, not only the forearm, but the hand as well. It's a remarkable thing because you have, not only the exposed mechanics of the human hand, but the intact hand of the doctor manipulating that exposed hand, and although we don't see it directly, the hand of the artist who's able to produce this painting with his own hand, which is here visible through his brush work. - [Voiceover] Through the paint. I've always understood what Tulp was doing with his left hand as showing how those tendons would move the arm. - [Voiceover] Rembrandt has placed these figures in a pyramid, that is, they're almost stacked on top of each other so the no face is hidden in part and each figure is given a kind of prominence. - [Voiceover] But that pyramid is off to the left, and so there's a real asymmetry, and Tulp stands alone on the right. That foreshortened cadaver coming into our space, it's a horrifying painting for us to look at. Although these may have been public events in the 17th century, these aren't things that we're used to seeing. - [Voiceover] I'm interested in the fact that when we see dead bodies painted in the history of western art, it is generally a representation of Christ. There are even examples where Christ is represented in this kind of foreshortened pose. You might think, for instance, of Dead Christ by Mantegna. But here, science has replaced the spiritual, and it is really a reminder that the 17th century is a point where science really does come to the fore and begins to lay the foundation for the modern world. - [Voiceover] We see Rembrandt bringing drama, and bringing narrative, and bringing storytelling to the group portrait. We saw this, for example, in The Night Watch, this amazing kind of animation and naturalism removing the stiffness and uniformity of light that had been there in earlier group portraits. - [Voiceover] And like the later Night Watch, Rembrandt focuses our attention in very specific places. Look, for example, at the way which the entire lower left corner is virtually invisible. We can just make out the elbows, the drapes of the figures. We can just make out the chair, but we're not meant to focus there. Our eye is not meant to rest there, but our eye is drawn to the center. Of course, the most attention is given to the faces and then the attributes of the success of these figures, and that comes across very clearly in the starched white collars, which are painted with such meticulous skill and were a signal of the wealth of the sitters. Think about the effort that went into keeping those snow-white, and then ironing them and starching them so that they were just perfect. It's so clearly a Baroque painting. Look at the proximity of that body, the way in which we are part of the circle surrounding this body. There's an intimacy and directness that you'd never see in the Renaissance. - [Voiceover] And that reality of that dead body too. We don't have that tendency to idealize that we see in Renaissance painting, but that interest in reality and the mundane, in day to day life that's part of, especially, Dutch Baroque paintings. Now Rembrandt is 25 when he paints this, which is just astounding. At an age when most people would still be students, Rembrandt appears to be an accomplished artist. He had just recently moved to Amsterdam, and this painting launches his career as the most sought after portrait painter in Amsterdam for a couple of decades to come. (piano music)