|Rembrandt was 26 when he painted The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: a group portrait commissioned by the Amsterdam surgeons’ guild. Shortly before this he had moved from Leiden to Amsterdam, and this was his first large commission. Here the young artist displayed his remarkable ability to paint group portraits.
Rembrandt portrayed the surgeons attending an anatomy lesson. The men sit or stand around a table holding a corpse. Dr
Tulp is the instructor. Having dissected an arm, he uses forceps to lift up a bundle of arm muscles while making a demonstrative gesture with his other hand.
Group portraits are often stiff compositions – a series of heads ranged in a row – but this was not the case with Rembrandt. The surgeons are portrayed reacting to what they see: bending forward with interest, looking at the dissected arm or the anatomy book at the lower right, or gazing at the viewer. Moreover, the whole scene is bathed in a dramatic light, imbuing the composition with a sense of action and suspense.