Dissection of Rembrandt Andrew Shorthouse February 25th 2019

The talk began with a brief resumé of how the prot­est­ant Dutch revolt against Spanish rule lead to inde­pend­ence and the Golden Age. The Dutch accrued enorm­ous wealth from trade and became Europe’s store­house for grain and timber, the staples of food, hous­ing and ship­ping. Amsterdam was the hub. It was a time of great soph­ist­ic­a­tion with huge interest in the arts and sci­ences. The expand­ing mer­chant class gen­er­ated vast wealth and stoked a thriv­ing art trade. Rembrandt was there at the right time. He was born in Leiden in 1606, the son of a pros­per­ous malt miller and his mother belonged to a wealthy family of bakers. Although they were Calvinists, Rembrandt him­self was never par­tic­u­larly reli­gious. He was at the Latin school from 14 fol­lowed by Leiden University, but his pas­sion was art and he dropped out from a clas­sical edu­ca­tion at 16. His first appren­tice­ship was 3 years with Jacob van Swanenburgh in Leiden. He then moved to Amsterdam for a year with the influ­en­tial Pieter Lastman, an emin­ent artist who had returned from Italy having met Caravaggio and Titian.

Rembrandt was tem­por­ar­ily in Leiden as an inde­pend­ent artist but quickly fol­lowed the money to Amsterdam in 1631 and took lodgings with Hendrik Uylenburgh, an influ­en­tial art dealer. His repu­ta­tion grew rap­idly with por­trait and his­tor­ical scene com­mis­sions.

He quickly made import­ant con­tact with roy­alty and the Amsterdam elite. Within a year, he was given a pivotal “make or break” com­mis­sion to paint the fourth Guild of Surgeons’ group por­trait as a record of the Praelector’s (Professor’s) Annual Public Anatomy. These por­traits date from 1603 and most can be found in the Museum of Amsterdam together with those of the other guilds.

Philip II had gran­ted a priv­ilege in 1555 to dis­sect an executed crim­inal once a year not only for the pur­pose of teach­ing and learn­ing ana­tomy, but also for con­tem­plat­ing life and death; reli­gious fear gov­erned the des­tiny of the soul. The dynamic teach­ing and ges­tures of Dr Tulp and the other guild mem­bers con­trast with the static corpse and provide the ana­logy. The Dutch had a huge stom­ach for this sort of public enter­tain­ment. Public dis­sec­tions lasted about 3 days and held in January for obvi­ous reas­ons.

Rembrandt was just 25 and had rel­at­ively few por­traits under the belt, so no sweat. But he was brave enough to depart from the stiff form­al­ised group por­trait to create the dynamic The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp 1632”, now per­man­ently housed in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.

Detailed archival records of the Golden age are avail­able in the Netherlands. Dr Tulp was born Claes Pietersz but changed his name to Tulp, hanging a swinging board with a painted tulip over his con­sult­ing room front door so his patients could find him easily – many were illit­er­ate – a good move! It was the time of tulip­mania.

Tulp qual­i­fied in medi­cine in Leiden and was the first to estab­lish the link between lung dis­ease and tobacco.

His staple treat­ment was “pur­ging simples, in degrees from gentle to viol­ent, upwards or down­wards”. Melancholy was very fash­ion­able at the time.

He also signed off fit­ness reports on the first Manhatten set­tlers. In 1641 his “Observationes Medicae” brought him inter­na­tional fame and became a stand­ard text­book for many years. As an accom­plished artist, he illus­trated it him­self. He was incid­ent­ally the first to record the exist­ence of the chim­pan­zee!

He became Praelector of the Surgeons’ Guild in 1628, was the offi­cial city ana­tom­ist, foun­ded the Collegium Medicum (fore­run­ner of the Amsterdam University Medical School), elec­ted mayor and was a cent­ral player in Amsterdam soci­ety.

 The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp shows him teach­ing the rela­tion­ship between the ana­tomy of the flexor digitorum super­fi­cialis muscle of the fore­arm and its func­tion, rep­lic­ated and demon­strated by Tulp with his left hand. This muscle bends the fin­gers for­wards (e.g. in waving).

Seven guild mem­bers and an unseen audi­ence of up to 300, packed and stacked in steep tiers of the sur­round­ing ana­tomy theatre, are being taught by Tulp, whose dom­in­ance is marked by a dynamic pos­ture, a large brimmed hat, flat white collar and black finery, in direct con­trast with the naked static white corpse. This was Aris ‘t Kint who was executed on Jan 31st 1631 as a serial thief. Prior to exe­cu­tion he was branded and his right hand was ampu­tated as extra pun­ish­ment.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp was almost cer­tainly not painted “live”. Dissection nor­mally star­ted with abdo­men and chest, clear­ing the con­tents before the stench set in (too badly). The guild mem­bers were dressed in their best. Individual studio por­traits were prob­ably pre­pared before the dis­sec­tion. There is no record of Rembrandt’s pres­ence at the dis­sec­tion and he left no pre­lim­in­ary draw­ings, although he undoubtedly had atten­ded others, if not this par­tic­u­lar one. The dis­sec­ted left arm was prob­ably studio painted, either Aris ‘t Kint’s own after the dis­sec­tion or some other corpse’s arm. Rembrandt might just have copied from an ana­tom­ical illus­tra­tion. Who knows?

Dissection of the arm and hand is sig­ni­fic­ant. Dr Tulp wanted to be seen as the new Vesalius, who’d rub­bished Galen’s 1300 year old the­or­ies of ana­tomy based upon animal dis­sec­tion. Vesalius was the first to relate human ana­tomy to func­tion.

17th cen­tury intel­lec­tu­als felt that ana­tomy was the path to God and that the hand was vis­ible proof of God’s pres­ence.

Rembrandt relied on Lastman’s teach­ing in achiev­ing a dynamic com­pos­i­tion, with a clear nar­rat­ive; a snap-shot “record” of Tulp’s lesson, the dis­sec­tion climax relat­ing ana­tomy to func­tion emu­lat­ing Vesalius, and a pleth­ora of sym­bolic ges­tures and demean­ors. It was a stroke of genius on Rembrandt’s part to paint de Wit lean­ing hori­zont­ally for­ward (above the corpse’ head) to create such dra­matic ten­sion.

Although the guild mem­bers are all closely linked to one another, there is a clear sense of hier­archy and sub­or­din­a­tion, espe­cially with Tulp’s dom­in­ance and in his own space on the right of the paint­ing.

3-D illu­sion is bril­liantly achieved by a com­bin­a­tion of tech­niques. Rembrandt’s pri­or­ity was dark­ness for drama and con­trast. He was a master of chiaroscuro (light to shade trans­ition), already refined by Caravaggio. Tonal change is prom­in­ent; opaque impasto of the corpse (neat thick white paint with vis­ible brush strokes) attracts the eye and brings the corpse for­ward. There is pro­gress­ive trans­par­ency and fuzzi­ness towards the rear, giving the illu­sion of dis­tance, as does over­lap of guild mem­bers, fore­short­en­ing of the corpse, and subtle diminu­tion in size of the guild mem­bers towards the rear. Rembrandt used a simple palette of earth col­ours with greater emphasis on tonal and light manip­u­la­tion, but 3-D mod­el­ling of faces was also achieved by juxta pos­i­tion of cold (e.g. green/blue) and warm (e.g. red/orange) col­ours.

Did Rembrandt use geo­metry in his pre­lim­in­ary arrange­ment of fig­ures? This is con­ten­tious. He was famil­iar with clas­sical teach­ing but received opin­ion is that he used tri­angles. Bouleau (1963) stated that any attempt to ana­lyse com­pos­i­tion tech­nique is pre­sump­tu­ous. Various geo­met­rical ideas were out­lined in the talk (par­al­lel­o­grams, tri­angles, rabat­ments, arcs and circles). It is more than tempt­ing to think Rembrandt might have resor­ted to geo­metry in his plan­ning of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Many of today’s artists rub­bish this idea, con­victed to the idea of nouse and intu­ition through nat­ural talent.

Rabatment (squares within a rect­angle), arc and circle within the two rabat­ments

Guild archives show that the paint­ing was housed in a servant’s kit­chen and got into a dread­ful state with smoke, damp and, in 1723, fire. The City Council decided to sell. King Willem I ordered its pur­chase in 1828 for the Mauritshuis Museum, where it stays to this day.

There have been 20 restorations/repairs from 1700. A major res­tor­a­tion was car­ried out in1996-8 with hard evid­ence emer­ging for its ori­ginal com­pos­i­tion and addi­tions by others, using stereo-microscopy, UV, X-rays, IR pho­to­graphy, and reflec­to­graphy.

Rembrandt’s sig­na­ture is genu­ine and he painted all the Guild mem­bers, making vari­ous adjust­ments him­self. He metic­u­lously painted a new hand onto the corpse’s stump. A later 18th cen­tury over­paint­ing of a guild mem­bers’ roll call (just to the left of Tulp) by others was partly removed to reveal a dam­aged but largely intact and ori­ginal under­ly­ing ana­tom­ical illus­tra­tion by Rembrandt

For over a cen­tury there has been fierce debate about whether Rembrandt got the ana­tomy of the dis­sec­ted fore­arm wrong. A recent com­par­at­ive Dutch ana­tom­ical study proved he was right.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp was enorm­ously suc­cess­ful. Fame and for­tune quickly fol­lowed. In 1634 he mar­ried Saskia Uylenburgh, the niece of the art dealer. Of four chil­dren, only Titus sur­vived.

The turn­ing point was 1642 when Saskia died. The Night Watch was com­pleted to great acclaim at the same time, but it marked the start of a long decline. In 1643 he co-habited with Geertja Dirkes, a wid­owed bar­maid, his house-keeper and Titus’ nanny. Then there was an acri­mo­ni­ous sep­ar­a­tion and Rembrandt was sued. Somehow he engin­eered her deten­tion in a lun­atic asylum but his repu­ta­tion was dam­aged. By 1649 the 24 year old Hendrijke Stoffels was living with Rembrandt.

Financial arrange­ments in Saskia’s will pre­ven­ted mar­riage but an ille­git­im­ate daugh­ter fol­lowed. Hendrickje was ex-communicated and charged with pros­ti­tu­tion on the grounds she was unmar­ried and had “stained her­self by for­nic­at­ing with Rembrandt”.

Problems moun­ted. The Anglo Dutch wars from 1652 lead to col­lapse of the eco­nomy and art trade. Uylenburgh’s son had inher­ited his father’s gal­lery and was declared bank­rupt. The Prince of Orange, a major patron, died. Rembrandt, an extra­vag­ant spender, had ser­i­ously over­stretched him­self buying master paint­ings and taking out prop­erty loans. He was declared bank­rupt in 1656. His pos­ses­sions and prop­erty were sold but the return was poor due to the fail­ing eco­nomy.

Creditors were left short. A neat trick; Hendrickje and Titus set up in busi­ness with Rembrandt as an employee but without a salary, just board and lodging. He car­ried on paint­ing but des­pite his dam­aged repu­ta­tion he was still in demand, lead­ing to his greatest period. Examples are Jan Six, The Jewish Bride, The Syndics of the Cloth Workers’ Guild, St Peter deny­ing Christ, The Slaughter House. Many of these can be seen in the cur­rent extra­vag­anza in Amsterdam at the Rijk’s Museum “All the Rembrandts” (15 Feb-10 June).

Rembrandt’s health was poorly doc­u­mented. Medical records from 1632 showed “fever­ish industry, lack of leis­ure, sedent­ary life…but oth­er­wise in good health” (like most of us long before retire­ment). In 1641 Tulp, most prob­ably refer­ring to Rembrandt, recor­ded “a dis­tin­guished painter…harassed with black bile … delu­sional that all his bones were softening…bed ridden for months with mel­an­choly and hypochondriasis…cured with “cath­artic med­ic­a­tions” (a pan­acea of the times). Depression had set in around the time of Saskias’s death. But many paint­ers had chronic lead pois­on­ing, with depres­sion one of many symp­toms, due to lead based pig­ment on skin, cloth­ing and from inhal­a­tion.

Rembrandt even­tu­ally died aged 63, a very good age at the time, given life expect­ancy then was only 44.

Rembrandt’s last self-portrait

I was asked at the talk why Rembrandt did so many self-portraits, some­thing approach­ing 100 paint­ings, prints and draw­ings. No-one knows for cer­tain. There was cer­tainly a com­mer­cial demand for this sort of paint­ing. He might have wanted to create a visual record of him­self over a span of 40 years; his stu­dents made copies as part of their train­ing; was he pos­sibly nar­ciss­istic?

They were painted using a mirror, so his fea­tures were in reverse. Only his etch­ings show him as he really was, because print­ing res­ults in a reversed image.

Finally, this his­tor­ical novel by Nina Siegal is fac­tu­ally pretty accur­ate and a very good bed­time read – sleep well!