Important Art by Rembrandt van Rijn
In this pyramid-shaped composition, seven awkwardly posed men with bright white, ruffled collars are intently observing a man named Dr. Tulp who is facilitating an anatomy lesson. He completely commands the right side of the painting, demonstrating on a male cadaver. The unity of the parts is remarkably well planned with the angle and size of the dead man drawing the viewer's eyes into the center.
The work depicts the important annual January anatomy lesson, which was an eagerly anticipated event for all the local senators, burgomasters, and aldermen of the city. The curators and rectors from the university also attended with crowds of professors and students while the general public purchased tickets to sit on benches in the back row. In The Body Emblazoned, Jonathan Sawday noted that, "...anatomization takes place so that, in lieu of a formerly complete 'body,' a new 'body' of knowledge and understanding can be created. As the physical body is fragmented, so the body of understanding is held to be shaped and formed."
This type of group portrait was a purely Dutch institution; a unique and long established tradition that helped document and honor the officers of a guild or other organization. Usually six to twenty individuals shared the cost and composition equally. In this piece, Rembrandt's carefully rendered and illuminated faces stare at the corpse or glance out at the viewer to establish their sense of importance and inclusion. The scene is highly staged and dramatic with the esteemed physician wearing his hat to denote his status for the rapt audience. Rembrandt ensures that the viewer understands the narrative without distraction by limiting the colors to simply dark or brightly lit except for the bloody left forearm being dissected near the center of the composition. The brightest areas: the prone body, the faces, and Dr. Tulp's hands, which are meticulously drawn and subtly rendered, are meant to capture the viewer's attention. Rembrandt earned the highest esteem with this brilliant group portrait and received many similar commissions of this type.
This ambitious painting depicts the Dutch notion of a Near Eastern Potentate, an exotic foreign subject that would appeal to an experienced, knowledgeable collector. A swathed and stately colossal figure stares sternly out, his shoulders and head dramatically illuminated from the front and back. His golden garment gleams beneath a metallic scarf and silver turban while ornaments and jewelry sparkle and glint.
During the 1630s Rembrandt depicted many figures wearing Middle Eastern garments in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. The commercial enterprises of the Dutch Republic had reached the Middle East by the early seventeenth century and Levantines were to be seen in the streets and marketplaces of Amsterdam. Portraits of imaginary Persian, Ottoman, or other "Oriental" princes became popular in the bustling city. But Rembrandt's images are not mere portraits of those people. Rather, they are imaginative representations of a distant culture that feature Dutch models, including Rembrandt himself, dressed in exotic attire.
The piece shows Rembrandt's mastery as a painter of light, as well as figures, which explains his use of a limited, muted palette to create endless depth. He used deep shadows that disappeared into obscurity with uneven golden illumination and highlights brushed in with bold, dashing strokes. Sometimes he used an abundance of paint, sometimes very little and sometimes he scratched the canvas with the handle of his brush; he worked to create the exact effect he desired. Curator Walter Liedtke voiced his opinion: "I think Rembrandt satisfies a need for modern tastes...He's so contemplative...It's also brilliantly preserved...on a polished oak board here with oil paint, and wonderful textures...the linen, rough, you can actually...feel it."
This painting, Rembrandt's only seascape, depicts the dramatic miracle when Jesus intervened to calm a violent storm on the Sea of Galilee. The biblical story from the New Testament would be familiar to the Dutch people of Rembrandt's time period. The influence of Rubens can be seen in the darkly churning, frothy waves that threaten to overturn the small wind-whipped boat. The mast of the boat creates a diagonal line that divides the composition into two triangles. In the left triangle, extreme danger and intense activity loom but there is a golden light illuminating the edges of the dark clouds, the agitated men and the ripped main sail. In the right triangle, a figure in red is draped over the side of the boat and the helmsman steadies the rudder against the bucking waves. Only one figure, dressed in blue, and holding onto his cap looks directly out at the viewer by steadying himself with a rope; he has Rembrandt's features. The artist often painted himself into his compositions and here he engages the viewer in the turbulent activity. It is a concentrated scene of drama played out within a large, changing fearsome space. The enormous dramatic power of nature is shown testing mankind but the impending miracle is emphasized. To finish the story, the gospels say, once Jesus understood their dire plight, he stood up and pointing towards the storm, said, "Quiet! Be still!" and the vicious storm abated.
The extremely detailed depiction of the scene and story, the figures' varied expressions, the polished brushstrokes, and bright colors characterize Rembrandt's early style. 18th century critics, especially Arnold Houbraken, a biographer of Dutch artists, preferred this style to his later less specifically detailed manner. As in most Baroque art, the viewer is invited to share an emotional experience, to become involved rather than passively observe.