The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is an oil painting made by Dutch painter Rembrandt in 1632, which is commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons for their Guild Room. Rembrandt painted it at the age of 26, and later it became one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings and now hangs in the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp depicts the scene that Dr Tulp, a famous surgeon in that time, giving lectures about dissection. It is a great representative of the “Group portraits”, which flourished in 17th century Holland. It derives from portraits and become popular between urban, middle-class societies in Holland. Rembrandt oil painting, the Night Watch, also belongs to “Group portraits”.
There are altogether 8 persons in the painting, among which Dr. Tulp is the key character, surrounded by 7 members from the guild. He is explaining and demonstrating the musculature of the arm to the audience. And we can notice that he is looking beyond these people around him and his eyesight reaches somewhere outside of the picture, maybe other listeners out there. The seven guild members are painted in different postures and positions, so that every one’s face is clearly and equally showed with various facial expressions, indicating different personalities. The barely visible background and the plain color even set off the main theme of the painting. Rembrandt was very skilled in the treatment of light and contrast. In the center of the painting lies the corpse, an executed criminal who was sentenced to death by hanging for robbery, being dissected for the lesson. He is highlight by a bright light coming from the left, with the face partially shaded, making a sharp contrast between the cold dead corpse and the dark living people around and the black background.
In the 17th century, anatomy lessons were a popular social event, usually taking place in actual theaters with audience who were permitted to attend on paying the entrance fee. These lessons were mainly carried out in winter time for the temperatures were low enough to refrigerate corpse.
The purpose of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is mainly to portrait the important members of the Guild rather than to an anatomical dissection authentically, however, Rembrandt still combines them quite well.