The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp

Van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmenszoon

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Painting

Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown
  • Date of entry: Jan-28-2005
  • Last revised: May-25-2016


In this famous group portrait, seven figures, situated in the anatomical theatre of the Surgeon’s Guild in Amsterdam in 1632, gaze intently in various directions--several look towards the cadaver of Aris Kindt, a criminal recently executed for robbery; others towards the 39-year old surgeon and appointed "city anatomist" (Praelator Anatomie) Nicolaes Tulp; several figures seem to look towards the large text at the bottom right of the painting, possibly the authoritative anatomical atlas by Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Coporius Humani [Fabric of the Human Body] published in 1543; several figures gaze out towards the viewer. Tulp himself appears to look beyond the guild members to an audience elsewhere in the anatomical theatre.Only the left forearm and hand of the cadaver have been dissected. With forceps in his right hand, Tulp holds the muscle which, when contracted, causes the fingers to flex (flexor digitorum superficialis). Tulp’s own left hand position seems to demonstrate this movement. The figure farthest from the cadaver appears to imitate this position. The palour and stiffness of the cadaver contrasts with the intensity and colour on the faces of the onlookers, and with the living hands of Tulp the dissector.


Painted when Rembrandt was 26, to be hung in the Hall of the Surgeon’s Guild, the work is remarkable for its novel presentation of group portraiture and anatomy. At this time, group portraits were a favourite among successful businessmen and public officials who commemorated themselves, their colleagues, and often, for a fee, would also include other important community members in such paintings. In the egalitarian Dutch Republic of the 17th C, painters were careful to give equal focus and position to all the figures.[For a comparative example of more typical 17th C group portraiture, see another painting of an anatomy lesson which also hung in the Surgeon’s Guild at Amsterdam, painted in 1616, and attributed to Thomas De Keyer, The Osteology Lesson by Sebastiaen Egbertsz, Amsterdams Historisch Museum, . (Select English-Museum-Collection-pulldown Collection Quick menu,1600-1650. Click on thumbnail of painting for full view)]In Rembrandt’s portrait, several of the figures are members of the Surgeon’s Guild, and several are educated members of the public. (At the time there was one public dissection per year in Amsterdam). They are arranged in a pyramid on one side of the painting with the cadaver bisecting the space between Tulp, the anatomist, and the viewer; nevertheless, none of the onlookers has a particular prominence; the dominant figure is the anatomist. The dissection itself is unusual; before preservation methods were available, the abdominal viscera, which were most perishable, would be dissected out first. Here the body remains unopened.The figures are depicted dynamically as students at a lesson; the diversity of their gazes indicates the different levels of attention and focus of each individual figure; the various positions of their bodies suggest motion, in contrast to the stasis and utter stillness of the corpse. The position of Tulp’s left hand against his coat, and the tension of his other hand on the forceps that grabs the tissue of the cadaver’s forearm, and the various positions of the students, suggest a frozen moment in time--a teaching moment in which Tulp demonstrates a relationship between an anatomical structure and its function.


A textual companion piece for teaching with this painting is a personal essay by Lawrence Weschler, "An Anatomy Lesson: Looking at Rembrandt between sessions of the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal," which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Boston, October 1997, Vol. 280, issue 4, p. 82.

A novel inspired by the painting is Nina Siegal's The Anatomy Lesson also in this Database

Primary Source

Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands