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26 June, 2013
The Lost Genre
It's not often we find an ancient genre of painting that has absolutely no equivalent in art today. However in 1628, a painting of this genre was the spark that ignited the career of Rembrandt van Rijn. Personally, I would consider us fortunate now that we no longer see paintings of this genre, but then, I'm no great fan of the TV shows ER or Chicago Hope either. These two slice and dice television extravaganzas are about the closest things we have today to what I'll call for lack of a better term, the "anatomy lesson" genre in Dutch seventeenth century painting. Let me warn you, if you're the least big squeamish, skip the next two paragraphs.

The Rembrandt painting is his 1628 group portrait The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. In it, seven well-dressed men (not doctors or even medical students by the way, but merely spectators), peer over the shoulder of the illustrious doctor/politician Nicolaes Pietersz Tulp as he demonstrates the workings of the exposed tendons of the equally illustrious murderer, Adriaen (Het Kind [the boy]) Adriaensz. The corpse is appropriately dead looking and modestly draped across the loins. And, considering some of the similar "group portraits" of this genre done by Pieter van Miereveld and Rembrandt's own Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656), it's in relatively good taste. In contrast, Dr. Deyman seems to be demonstrating brain surgery having too obviously exhausted the contents of the deceased's gaping torso. Though not as "gross" as Rembrandt's Dr. Deyman, the Miereveld painting seems to be in dire need of "crowd control" as the "anatomiser" puts on quite a show for the artist. The doctor and every one of the 15 figures here look straight on at the viewer (except for the corpse of course, which seems to be just a surprisingly healthy-looking prop).

Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman, with the cadaver's feet extending straight into the viewer's face is a compositional rip-off of the Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna's (pronounced Mon-TANE-ya) 1506 painting Dead Christ from which the entire genre may have evolved. At least Mantegna, in exposing the nail holes in Christ's hands and feet, had good reason to explore the extreme foreshortening that makes this evocative masterpiece so striking, poignant, and spiritually powerful. The Dutch descendants were often not even good group portraits, more like a souvenir of a grisly sideshow, which in fact, was exactly what such occasions were. Viewers paid exorbitant sums to the doctor for admission to the "surgical theatre;" and included in the price of admission was your picture with the "noted" physician. Makes ER seem like high art.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
5 February 1999

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