January 31st, 2012 Headsman
We can trace to this date the event commemorated in young Rembrandt van Rijn‘s striking The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp … resolving to the public hanging the same day* of the Lesson‘s ashen exhibit, a robber by the name of Aris Kindt.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.
The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.
He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**
Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)
The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).
And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.
The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.
This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.
Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.
Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.
* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)
** The 17th century Dutch left a number of similar “anatomy lesson” works. That same Amsterdam guild commissioned a new one every few years as part of its keeping up appearances; the last had been a 1619 portrait from Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz.
† Speaking of Leiden: see this pdf thesis for a very detailed excursion into the anatomizing scene as practiced in that city.
‡ Needless to say, we can hardly presume that this painting is strictly representational. Still, this is Kindt for us, even if Kindt looked nothing like the fellow being taken apart.
Also on this date
- 1902: A day in the death penalty around the Pacific Northwest
- 1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist
- 1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon
- 1955: Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar
- 1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion
- 1606: Guy Fawkes and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators