OIL PAINTING: The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
Rembrandt began to work as a professional portraitist about 1631. His earliest existing commissioned portraits (Portrait of a Scholar, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Portrait of the Amsterdam Merchant Nicholaas Ruts, Frick Collection, New York) are both of that year. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp of 1632 shows how quickly he surpassed the smooth technique of the fashionable Amsterdam portraitists. The group portrait of Tulp, appointed 'praelector anatomiae' of Amsterdam's surgeon guild in 1628, and seven of the guild's members probably established his reputation immediately. All potential clients must have been impressed by the new vitality and pictorial richness Rembrandt gave to the portraits. The painting still impresses us today by the dramatic concentration of the figures on Tulp's demonstration of the dissection of a forearm.
The corpse is the focus in The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by its intense brightness. From here, the eye of the spectator is led to the illuminated heads of the listeners, whose expressions and attitudes reflect different degrees of attention, and to the face and hands of Tulp, who is a most convincing representation of a scholar absorbed in his subject. With forceps in his right hand Tulp holds the muscles and tendons of the arm that control the movement of the hand, while the bent fingers of his left hand demonstrate an aspect of their wondrous action. The illusionism is enhanced by the vivid characterization of the individuals as well as by the artist's great power in dramatizing the moment within a coherent group. Without the strong chiaroscuro and the fine atmospheric quality that is combined with it, the painting would lose its intensity, the sculptural quality of the forms, and all the excitement of the moment. Here, psychological and pictorial tension combine to create the feeling of an extraordinary event.