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The Missing Link

The Missing Link #11: Rembrandt

by Lin Abigail Tan

~A weekly column exploring the delightful, most arbitrary intricacies of our world through the lens of medicine~

Why was the painting arrested? Because it was framed. [ahahaha…why aren’t you laughing?]

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp Painting

You’ve probably seen this painting before, especially if you’re an art and anatomy aficionado like me. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was painted by Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) using oil on an 85.2 in. x 66.7 in. canvas. 

Rembrandt (known by his first name, as his last name was quite common) was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1606. He attended the University of Leiden for awhile, but realized studying wasn’t his passion and left to train under the famous Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. Afterwards, in 1629, Rembrandt was discovered by a statesman and received important commissions from the Court of the Hague (the Hague is the seat of the government in the Netherlands). In 1631, he returned to Amsterdam. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which was created in 1632, was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons (definition of guild: a medieval association of craftsmen often with significant power) and is regarded as one of Rembrandt’s early masterpieces. 

Perhaps the most prominent figure in the piece is the dead guy in the middle. The viewer is immediately drawn (albeit with a rather gruesome fascination) to his stark and macabre presence. His name was Adriaan Adriaanszoon, a convicted criminal–an armed robber, to be precise–who was sentenced to death by hanging. With white skin and a sunken chest, he also exhibits umbra mortis (i.e. “shadow of death”), which Rembrandt used frequently in his works. His navel, upon closer inspection, is in the shape of an “R”, which may have been Rembrandt’s attempt to design a unique signature. 

[Sidenote: the flexors in the exposed forearm are wrongly depicted, apparently. The flexor compartment is seen to originate at the lateral epicondyle (protuberance on a long bone), even though it should have been the medial epicondyle. This was discovered when Dutch researchers attempted to recreate the scene of the painting.] 

The man on the far right is Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, a well-respected civil leader and anatomist who also held the office of Praelector in Anatomy (definition: a praelector is like a professor or lecturer). The doctor’s dominant status is signified not only by his near-central position in the frame, but his dashing brimmed hat. Dr. Tulp was presenting the cadaver at a rare, once-a-year public dissection during the winter (why winter? Think preservation). 

The men crowding around the dissection table weren’t actually all present in real life. Most of the bystanders portrayed in the painting paid to be in it (kinda like an expensive photobomb). Two were legitimate surgeons, while the others were simply influential people from the surrounding area. 

One interesting point I learned when researching this painting was the dynamic of hands: the flayed hand of the cadaver, the intact hands of Dr. Tulp, and even the steady, skilled hand of Rembrandt himself. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is truly a work of societal and psychological resonance. 


“Rembrandt is truly called a magician…that’s not an easy calling.” ~Vincent van Gogh (a magician in his own right, in my opinion)

Works Cited

Moore, Levi. “Rembrandt-The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp – Hektoen International.” Sections, 22 Jan. 2017,

Pettinger , Tejvan. “Rembrandt Biography.” Biography Online, 26 Jan. 2018,“Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,

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