Paging Dr. Tulp

The painting managed to be many things at once: Rembrandt’s first masterpiece; a tribute to Amsterdam’s proud guild of surgeons; a commemoration of one of the annual entertainment highlights of the year; the glorification of one of the most ambitious men in one of the world’s most ambitious cities. We know it as “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.” But who was Dr. Tulp, anyway? And who was that poor sod laid out on the table? And why was all of it committed to canvas in the first place?

Fortunately, we happen to know an awful lot about Dr. Tulp. And because of the particular laws regarding human dissection at the time, we even know quite a bit about the subject on the table, Aris Kindt. And we can say quite a bit about what the painting meant for the man who painted it.

But what does it say about us today? Art, after all, doesn’t just exist in the time it was created. It speaks to us from the time of its creation, sometimes whispering and sometimes screaming, always waiting for us to hear. And this particular painting has a lot to tell us about influence, privilege, crime and humiliation.

From not so humble beginnings

It wasn’t that Claes Pieterszoon came from humble origins. He was the son of a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam, born in 1593, just as the city was starting to take off on the world’s stage. It’s just that Claes wanted so much more from life than his merchanting family had to offer. So in 1611, he headed off to the University of Leiden to study medicine, planning a career in medicine.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, by Rembrandt (1632)

He returned to his hometown, but he didn’t want to be constrained by his family of origin. He shed his family name like a snakeskin. “Pieterzoon” is a patronymic name that simply means “son of Peter,” but apparently this guy wanted to be his own man. He gave up “Claes” for its more formal version, Nicolaes, and took on “Tulp” for a last name. Tulp is simply the Dutch word for “Tulip,” which he also took for his newly created coat of arms.

In modern terms, he created his own brand.

He quickly earned a good reputation as a doctor, earning the confidence of the influential people of the city. This opened opportunities outside of medicine to him as well. In 1622, he joined the city council, and then became the city treasurer, an immensely powerful position. By 1654, he would become one of the four burgomasters, or mayors, leading the city. This means he was mayor during Rembrandt’s bankruptcy and Spinoza’s expulsion from the Jewish community.

Dr. Tulp was known for his moral uprightness and moderation. For instance, the practice of holding lavish weddings was increasing to the point that it was becoming difficult for poorer people to hold weddings at all in the city. To combat the problem, a luxury law was passed that held wedding celebrations to two days and 50 guests, with just six performing musician. The value of wedding gifts was not to exceed 5 percent of the bride’s dowry. However, families of means got around this law by paying the fine associated with it instead and carrying on as they used to do instead.

He was also a famed writer and promoter of scientific discoveries. Among his most notable works was a book called “The Book of Monsters.” The monsters included orangutans, chimpanzees, narwhals and conjoined twins – you know, monsters! It also included illustrations of carcinomas, a story about a Dutch man who performed a surgery on himself to remove a kidney stone, the first descriptions of hypochondria and the placebo effect and a myriad other wonders.

Master of ceremonies

Of all these accomplishments, one of Dr. Tulp’s most popular roles was his annual job as the coroner who performed the public human dissection in Amsterdam. This was not just an educational event for the guild of surgeons, although it was that, too. It was also a required attendance for the city council – a kind of fund-raising event for them, as well as a see-and-be-seen-at event for the well-to-do class of the town.

The orangutan from Dr. Tulp’s “Book of Monsters”

Just one dissection was permitted annually. They were performed in the winter, when the cold air decomposed the bodies slower. And the bodies were always those of a convicted criminal, hanged to death for their crimes. But unlike England, the dissection was not done as a further humiliation heaped onto the death sentence; the convicted person was promised a Christian burial after the dissection, unlike their English counterpart.

It may seem ghoulish that this annual rite became such a popular source of entertainment, but then, there’s no shortage of forensic science-based television shows on our television screens, either: the CSI franchises, the Law & Order shows, the entirety of the Discovery Network. People tend to be fascinated by the nexus of crime and biology; perhaps they always have been. Plus, the Netherlands was eager to assert itself as a safe haven for the sciences. Keep in mind, at the very same time, Galileo was under house arrest in Italy.

Naturally, the guild of surgeons (of which Dr. Tulp was the lecturer) was proud not only of its work, but of its city and its standing in it. So in a time when anyone who was anyone commissioned a painting of themselves to prove it, the guild wanted to the same. In 1632, it turned to art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh to ask for a referral to an artist up to the job, and Van Uylenburgh recommended an artist who had newly arrived in the city but was quickly making a name for himself: Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt’s composition was fresh different. Other group portraits had been done before, but not like this. Rembrandt didn’t line everyone up and have them face the same way. Each of the eight members of the guild was portrayed individually, each with their own reaction to the dissection going on. None are watching the dissection intently. Some stare off in space, some at the forceps of Dr. Tulp, while some seem more interested in the reaction of you, the viewer. A few of these men interacting with each other, too.

Interesting, isn’t it, that none of them can bring themselves to look at the man on the table? I get the idea that Rembrandt was saying something here, and it wasn’t necessarily a compliment to the men he painted.

But if that was the case, the message wasn’t received. The reaction to Rembrandt’s portrait was positive enough to cement his place as one of Amsterdam’s leading artists, and to launch his career. Rembrandt had the good fortune of being one of the few artists to know great commercial success during his lifetime, even if he did manage to squander it away as well. And that started with “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.”

History with conviction

But what about the one person in the painting we haven’t yet discussed, the man who lies dead on the table, the man who has recently been executed? Who was he and why was he put to death? What are we to make of his presence in this picture?

Because these dissections happened only once a year, it’s possible to pinpoint exactly who he was. His name was Aris Kindt, and he had been born and grown up in Leiden. He’d apparently had a string of minor crimes there – enough of them that he had been banished from the town and made his way to Amsterdam.

Once in Amsterdam, he was arrested in the winter of 1631-2 at the age of 28 for assault and robbery for trying to steal someone’s coat. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine him to be destitute, trying to take a coat just to stay warm. I admit I may be romanticising the scene. At any rate, the law was harsh, and though the Dutch Republic may have been rooted in the Dutch Reform Church, forgiveness was hard to come by. The penalty was death.

(As a side note: I’m involved in criminal justice reform, and I can tell you that the Christian Reformed Church, aka the Dutch Reformed Church, is pretty strong on supporting criminal justice reform efforts. So what was true then isn’t necessarily what is true today.)

The power dynamic in Rembrandt’s painting is impossible to ignore. Eight men of means, one condemned and executed man. Eight men wearing somber but fine clothing, one man not only stripped bare but cut open. And we, the viewer, are asked to join in on the spectacle, to heap even more humiliation upon Aris, to reduce his dignity even further. Turn away if you can, but it’s too late. You already saw.

Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Nicolaes Pickenoy

And this is what that noble, that respected, that venerated Dr. Tulp presided over. That self-made man, that ambitious man, that man of virtue that so many looked up to. Dr. Tulp symbolized all that Amsterdam wished to be, but he wasn’t above humiliating a corpse of a man who, quite likely, tried to grab a coat off a man in desperation to keep warm in the middle of a cold Amsterdam winter.

But then, the fate of Aris, at least the part where he was hanged by his neck for trying to steal a coat, wasn’t all that unusual in his day. Go ahead and argue that I’m reading too much into this from a 21st Century point of view, and I’ll acknowledge it. Criminal justice in the 17th Century was nothing like it is now, and for all the faults of our current criminal justice system, that’s a blessing. I mean, back then, parents could send their own kids to prison just for being lazy. Gay people were executed. Myriad crimes like robbery, murder and rape could result in a death sentence, too.

The thing is, we’re not as evolved from that point as we’d like to think we are. Oh, sure, we might not be executing people for stealing a coat, but what do you think about spending 36 years in prison for stealing $50 from a bakery (would you believe he’s black)? A woman who got five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot that she genuinely thought was done correctly (she is black, in case you wondering)? Or this man, sentenced to six years in prison even though the jury found him not guilty and there was no evidence against him (also black)?

What about the juvenile lifers, who were told by judges that they’d never walk free again before their 18th birthday. Who tells kids they are worthless while they are still kids? The U.S. Supreme Court said they’d all get a chance to be resentenced in 2012, but amazingly, many of them are still waiting for that chance.

And this man (hey, he’s black, too). He spent 45 years in prison. Forty-five years. For a rape he never committed. And then was released, but was so impoverished he had to sell the art he made in prison for a pittance to stay alive. Fortunately, people learned about him and began to put a premium on his art, but forty-five years is something you never get back. Ever.

And then there is the leper class we’ve created with the sex offender registries, which have been shown to be a failure in preventing crime or keeping people safe. They exist to do nothing more than humiliate and punish, so let’s be honest, first, about why they’re there. Even then, when is enough, enough? Laws that make it difficult to impossible for someone to find a place to live or a job to sustain themselves only feed into recidivism, actually working against their purported goals. And beside, the real threat when it comes to sex assault is not “stranger danger” at all, but the people you already know: your or your child’s relatives, co-workers, teachers, neighbors and spiritual leaders. Not the person on the registry who lives five blocks away who you don’t know.

We might not carve up people like Aris Kindt anymore for the fun of public spectacle. We don’t have to. We’ve come up with so many other ways to humiliate people we’ve decided are unworthy of dignity.

Look away if you want, but you’ve already seen it. You already know they’re there.

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