A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Nicholaes Tulp
By LIZ HAGER
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Clement III, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here to read all posts in the series.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicholaes Tulp,
1632, oil on canvas, approximately 5.5 x 7.1 feet.
(Mauritshuis Gallery, The Hague)
The Anatomy Lesson of Nicholaes Tulp marks Rembrandt’s first large commission, painted when the artist was 26 and newly arrived in Amsterdam. Rembrandt was to prove adept at group portraiture, and this painting has the hallmarks of many of his later group works, among them dramatic focal point and dynamic composition. Pictorial prototypes for anatomy lessons were scarce in Amsterdam at in 1632, although Rembrandt may have been familiar with Aert Pieterz’s 1603 example and Piet Mierevelt’s 1616 painting. With this portrait, however, Rembrandt pushed the genre into new territory.
Rembrandt blended spiritual and earthly concerns as no other painter before him. The painting reflects the enormous interest in and advancements made by science during the period. The subject, Nicholaes Tulp, demonstrates the workings of the hand through manipulation of forearm flexor muscle. Though painted during a period of scientific advancement, the painting displays inaccuracies, perhaps in the service of art. While Rembrandt has rendered elements of the dissected arm with with scientific accuracy, the hand of the cadaver does not clench closed as the doctor pulls on the main tendon. Further, the body cavity, which would have been opened first in a true dissection, remains untouched.
Apparently at Tulp’s own request, Rembrandt portrays him as the Andreas Vesalius of his age, in a pose replicated from the 1543 edition of Vesalius’ groundbreaking work De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Vesalius was hugely influential to Tulp’s generation. As the first doctor to dissect cadavers himself (the previous practice called for a surgeon to dissect while the physician read aloud suitable chapters from an anatomy tract), Vesalius was responsible for most of the anatomy that Tulp would have known.
Rather than the conventional “heads in a row” presentation, Rembrandt has arranged members of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild more dynamically in a semi-circle around the highlighted corpse in various gestures of reaction. Curious given that it’s a dissection, no one looks directly at the body. Compare it to Eakin’s later painting, The Gross Clinic, in which the team is absorbed in their tasks:
Thomas Eakins, Portrait of Doctor Samuel Gross (The Gross Clinic)
1875, oil on canvas, 8′ x 6’6″
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
The corpse is perhaps the most visually arresting element of the painting, bathed as it is in intense light. The body belonged to an executed criminal, and the painting is generally read as a statement about Tulp’s rendering good from evil. In the particular pose of this cadaver with its white loin cloth, it is impossible not read into it religious martyrdom, recalling as it does various depictions of the entombment of Christ.
Tulp held the tenets of science and religion as complementary; he firmly believed the practice of anatomy led to a greater knowledge of God. In particular, the hand with its ability to create human civilization was proof to Tulp of divine wisdom.
By the end of the 16th century, Holland had thrown off the yoke of Spain and entered her Golden Age. In the 17th century, the Dutch were basking in the success that their maritime prowess had brought through expanded trade opportunities and far-flung colonies. In 1632 the Dutch East India Company was in its 30th year and flourishing, returning annual profits in excess of 100%. True, Holland, with the rest of Europe, was embroiled in Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), but a decisive victory against the Spanish fleet was not far off.
Nicholaes Pickenoy, Cornelis de Graeff,
1636, oil on canvas,
Although lacemaking in Holland never reached the dimensions that it did in Flanders, the Dutch were nevertheless wild about lace. It used not only on garments, but also to decorate household objects, including warming implements. A quaint custom even called for lace around the door knocker of a Dutch home to announce a new born baby. The lace kept the knocker from waking the baby.
The eight figures in The Anatomy Lesson reflect the new economic affluence of the Dutch. The men are depicted in the manner typical of the prosperous burghers of the period—plain tailored suits ornamented with costly and often elaborate collars (a legacy of Spanish fashion). The painting is remarkable for the variety of its neckware—the pleated ruff, the “fallen” ruff, and the rather unostentatious lace-trimmed flat collar worn by Tulp himself. (A clearer version of this particular collar can been seen in Pickenoy’s 1633 portrait of Tulp.) The flat collar could be fashioned into a mini ruff by pulling its string ends closed.
Jan Cornelisz.Verspronck, Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue,
1641, oil on canvas, 82 x 66.5 cm
Tulp’s collar may be a form of “Dutch” lace, which was often used in the 17th century to rim collars. Dutch lace, actually Flemish, was a thick, closely worked, strong bobbin lace, worked in chrysanthemum- or cauliflower-like designs.
The ruff survived longest as an accessory in Holland; it was separated quickly from the shirt and, as such, survived well into the 17th century. Ruffed and flat dish collars often reached absurd lengths, up to a foot and a half, and special eating utensils required for use with them.
Judith Leyster’s self-portrait notwithstanding, it would be the French who took lace fashion to dizzy heights.
Judith Leyster, Self Portrait,
1630, oil on canvas,
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)