9 The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp


Title: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp

Artist/Source: Jean-Baptiste-Alfred Cornilliet (French, 1807 – 1895), after Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669)

Date: mid – late 19th Century

Medium/Technique: mezzotint and etching on paper

UCL Art Museum #4013

This print reproduces Rembrandt’s 1632 oil painting of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the official Anatomist for the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, explaining the musculature of the arm to fellow medical professionals. He would not have been involved in the actual dissection of the body, as it was considered a menial and bloody task better left to others. The Guild permitted only one public dissection a year, and the body would have been that of an executed criminal. Such anatomy lessons took place in lecture theatres, with students, doctors and general public able to attend upon paying an entrance fee. They often became important social events. Most of the spectators shown here are doctors who paid commissions to be included in what is essentially a portrait group.

Art historians have long considered Rembrandt’s painting paradoxical. Although it details the teaching of anatomy through dissection, for example, none of the physicians present actually examine the body. Instead, the physicians examine the anatomy text in front of them. The text is illegible but may have been an illustrated work such as Vesalius’ De Fabrica or Estienne’s Anatomy, both of similar size. The importance of reading during anatomy practice is captured in the naming of the dissecting anatomist as the praelector, or reader-demonstrator. But the glances of the physicians shown here do not even settle on the same place. Furthermore, the body under observation has not been accurately captured, the incorrect placement of the hand relative to its tendons evince a lack of attention usually given by the painter. Still, in the painting, Rembrandt has carefully rendered the affect of decomposition on the body in the bluing feet.

Jean-Baptiste-Alfred Cornilliet, the French artist who made this print after Rembrandt’s original composition, specialized in prints after the old masters. Cornilliet’s version has a softness characteristic of contemporary romantic painting, created through the blending effects of the mezzotint technique, which also replicates Rembrandt’s smoky chiaroscuro. The subject of the anatomy lesson had continued relevance in early nineteenth-century Britain, since much progress in British medicine in the preceding decades had derived from the work of great anatomists such as William Hunter.


Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace, Spectacular Bodies, 2007.

William Schupbach, “The Paradox of Rembrandt’s Anatomy of Dr. Tulp”, Medical History, 1982.

N. Middelkoop et al., Rembrandt under the Scalpel, exhibition catalogue, Mauritshuis, 1999.

Related works:

Johann Jacobe, The Vienna Academy, 1790, mezzotint (#8078).


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