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Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp

Video transcript

in the Lord's house Museum in The Hague we're looking at one of Rembrandt's most famous paintings this is the anatomy lesson of dr. taupe this is a typical group portrait an important type of painting in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century this happens to be the guild of surgeons and regularly they would Commission a group portrait to hang in the public space where their guild would meet once a year there would be a public dissection where some element of the body would be explicated and that's what we're seeing here now this is not true to life in reality this would have been a much more public event it's very likely that the chief surgeon in this case dr. Taub would not have been performing the actual dissection but would have had an assistant do this but what's so remarkable here is that Rembrandt is reinventing the group portrait now it's important to remember that Holland in the 17th century was largely a Protestant nation and the church was no longer a major patron and so artists looked to the professional and middle classes for patronage and that's what we have here and the professional and middle classes and merchant classes look to artists to create a new kind of art that would meet their needs and in this case the need to show off the profession of these men and specifically in this case the brilliance of dr. told I think it's hard to imagine that for so much of history prior to this painting as a culture we had so little understanding of the human body we begin to reinvestigate it during the Renaissance and then here in the Baroque era we begin to impose a scientific investigation on the human body and understand it again Leonardo Michelangelo dissected bodies pretty much in secret so they could understand how the body worked and represented in their paintings but up in the north in the Dutch Republic doctors and artists were able to do this more openly that book at the feet of the cadaver is a reminder of this renewed interest in you Anatomy their dissecting a man who had just been hanged he's a criminal look at the way that Rembrandt has taken what was a shanwa of painting where men's faces were often simply a lime very much like a contemporary class portrait which was meant to be a documentation and he's created out of that not only a sense of individuality but a sense of a shared moment a narrative a story that unfolds each of these figures doing something slightly different paying attention to slightly different things and then you have this wonderful varied light with the most light falling on the cadaver and on dr. Tulp he's lifting up the tendons and exposing not only the forearm but the hand as well and it's a remarkable thing because you have not only the exposed mechanics of the human hand but the intact hand of the doctor manipulating that exposed hand and although we don't see directly the hand of the artist who's able to produce this painting with his own hand which is here visible through his brushwork through the paint and I've always understood what taupe was doing with his left hand and showing how those tendons would move the arm and Rembrandt displace these figures in a pyramid that is there almost stacked on top of each other so the no face is hidden in part and each figure is given a kind of prominence but that pyramid is off to the left and so there's a real asymmetry and taupe stands alone on the right that foreshortened cadaver coming into our space it's a horrifying painting for us to look at although these may have been public events in the 17th century these aren't things that we are used to seeing I'm interested in the fact that when we see dead bodies painted in the history of Western art it is generally a representation of Christ there are even examples where Christ is represented in this kind of foreshortened pose you might think for instance of dead Christ by Montaigne but here science has replaced the spiritual and it is really a reminder that the 17th century is a point where science really does come to the fore and begins to lay the foundation for the modern world we see Rembrandt bringing drama and bringing narrative and bringing storytelling to the group portrait we saw this for example in the Night Watch this amazing kind of animation and naturalism removing the stiffness and uniformity of light that had been there in earlier group portraits and like the later Nightwatch Rembrandt focuses our attention in very specific places look for example at the way in which the entire lower left corner is virtually invisible we can just make out the elbows the drapes of the figures we can just make out the chair but we're not meant to focus that our eye is not meant to rest there but our eye is drawn to the center and of course the most attention is given to the faces and then the attributes of the success of these figures and that comes across very clearly in this starched white collars which are painted with such meticulous skill and were a signal of the wealth of the sitters think about the effort that went into keeping those snow-white and then ironing them and starching them so that they were just perfect it's so clearly a baroque painting look at the proximity of that body the way in which we are part of the circle surrounding us body is it intimacy and directness that you'd never see the Renaissance and that reality of that dead body - we don't have the tendency to idealize that we see in Renaissance painting but that interest in reality and the mundane in day-to-day life it's part of especially Dutch baroque paintings now Rembrandt is 25 he paints this which is just astounding at an age when most people would still be students Rembrandt appears to be an accomplished artist he had just recently moved to Amsterdam and this painting launches his career as the most sought-after portrait painter in Amsterdam for a couple of decades to come you