Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632) – Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp was the turning point of Rembrandt’s career. As a relatively unknown painter, it was a huge coup for the precocious young artist to obtain such a prestigious commission. But why was Rembrandt painting anatomy lessons? And who is Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the main subject of the portrait? Singulart will explore these questions, as well as discussing the composition of the enigmatic artwork. 

What were anatomy lessons? 

In 17th century Holland, autopsies provided a valuable resource for anatomy lessons. They were always held in the winter, as the stench of a dead body at any other time of the year would be unbearable and the cold weather helped to preserve the cadaver. The lectures weren’t just open to medical students, either – any member of the general public was welcome to come and view a cadaver being dissected and discussed. As the anatomy lessons became more popular, the city council decided that it would be prudent to have an artist record these lectures and the important figures who attended. 

Lessons would take over a day to complete with criminals being used for the cadavers. It was seen as a sort of moral loophole as dissecting a body wasn’t necessarily in line with Christian values but the souls of the criminals were considered beyond redemption. Hence, they were allowed to be dissected as long as the anatomy lesson didn’t take place on holy ground. 

Who was Dr Nicolaes Tulp?

Nicolaes Tulp was born Claes Pieterszoon in Amsterdam, in 1593. At age 17, he commenced studies at the prestigious Leiden University, and began practicing as a physician in 1614. He became so popular that he soon required a single-horse carriage to take him to his appointments. He adopted the tulip as his emblem, going so far as to change his last name to Tulp (the Dutch word for tulip), and changing his first name to Nicolaes (the formal version of his birth name, Claes). 

Dr Tulp portrait
Dr Nicolaes Tulp

In 1628, Dr Tulp was named Praelector Anatomiae of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. One of his duties was to inspect apothecary shops, of which there was a booming trade in Amsterdam after it was hit by the plague in 1635. After viewing the exorbitant prices apothecary shops were charging for their alternative medicine (which was largely ineffective), Tulp gathered a group of colleagues together and created the first official pharmacopoeia of Amsterdam, a book containing directions for the identification of compound medicines. New apothecary owners would be required to take a test before setting up shop, and the practice quickly spread throughout Holland. 

One of Tulp’s most significant achievements was the publication of Observationes Medicae, published in 1641. The book, dedicated to his son, is comprised of observations about the many cases he observed. It became known as the ‘Book of Monsters’, thanks not only to the vivid descriptions of Tulp dissecting animals brought back from the ships of the Dutch India Trading Company, but also due to the stories related in the text. For example, Tulp relays the fantastical story of Jan de Doot, a blacksmith who refused medical attention for a stone in his foot and cut it out himself with a sharpened knife (surviving the operation). Tulp also discusses what we now call the migraine, the devastating effects of tobacco on the lungs, and the placebo effect. 

Tulp died at age 80, in September 1674. He was buried at the New Church of Amsterdam.

Composition of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp 

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp was Rembrandt’s first big commission after he arrived in Amsterdam. He was just 26 years old at the time of its completion. 

Rembrandt based this portrait on the anatomy lesson that took place on January 31, 1692. It has been debated whether Rembrandt copied the scenes of the lesson directly, sketching them as he viewed Dr Tulp lecturing his students, or if he took inspiration from viewing the anatomy lesson and used it to create a portrait from his imagination. The fact that the corpse’s chest cavity and thorax are not opened suggests that the artwork uses artistic licence, as these would generally be the first areas opened on a cadaver (they were the organs that would decay most rapidly). However, it has also been suggested that Rembrandt was referencing a recent school of thought that focused on the observation of lymphatics and the ‘white veins’. 

Additionally, Tulp would most likely not be doing the dissecting himself. That would be the job of the preparator, who prepared the body for dissection and took care of the menial work while the lecturer talked. This could also be the reason why there are no medical tools evident in the artwork. 

Dr. Tulp takes a place of prominence in the artwork, addressing a group of seven students. He is holding the arm of convicted criminal Aris Kindt, who was sentenced to death by hanging after committing a series of robberies. Interestingly, his navel is formed from the letter ‘r’, which historians have suggested was due to Rembrandt revising and practicing his signature at the time of painting. In a stark difference to other medical portraits of the time, Kindt is in the center of the piece, his pose calling to mind Christ-like iconography. His body looks as though it is glowing, providing a central focal point for the artwork. 

The seven men who make up the audience also gleam, lit from a beam of light. This could be symbolizing their enlightenment listening to the words of Dr Tulp, or could be a metaphor for the Dutch Golden Age that was occuring at the time. The students have varied expressions, some gazing at Dr Tulp, some looking directly towards the viewer. Dr. Tulp appears to be almost cut and pasted from a different scene, lit from a different light source to his students. 

An open textbook in the lower right hand corner is believed to be De humani corporis fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius. By including this well-regarded tome, Rembrandt associates Tulp with the great masters of medicine. 

Portrait Vesalius
Andreas Vesalius

Rembrandt did something unusual with The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, defying the conventions of medical portraits at the time. He chose to focus on the psychological aspects of the lesson rather than the medical elements, perhaps explaining the technical errors made in the piece. Through these choices, as well as his mastery of portraiture and chiaroscuro, Rembrandt has ensured that The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp endures – not only as a masterpiece – but as a true snapshot of the anatomy lessons of the 17th century. 

Click here to view some of the Rembrandt-inspired artworks that we have on Singulart