Rembrandt and Eakins: A Comparison

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Many artists over the centuries have tried to create the human body as realistically as possible.  In fact some even studied cadavers so that the muscles of their subjects would seem as if they were alive.  The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins actually depicted the inside of the body.  Even though these artists lived and painted in different centuries and artistic periods, they tackle the same subject and allow the world to see how similar the knowledge of medicine and the human body was before modern technology.

Rembrandt, the famous Dutch artist, painted during the Renaissance.  The Anatomy Lecture of

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Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, now housed in the Mauritshuis Museum in the Netherlands, was painted in sixteen thirty-two and the medium is oil on canvas.  Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and a criminal cadaver are the subjects.  Dr. Tulp, who actually existed, is giving a teaching a lesson on the muscles of the arm which has been sliced open.  There are many prominent prominently dressed doctors gathered around for the lesson. Several centuries later in eighteen seventy-five during the Realism Period, Eakins painted The Gross Clinic which is housed in Jefferson Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The medium is also oil on canvas. Instead of a cadaver, the action is actually centered on a patient having surgery on the leg.  However, the true subject is Dr. Gross, who is teaching those who have come to watch the surgery.  The spectators are not all doctors and even though this patient is alive, there is no indication that the surroundings are sterilized.

Since Rembrant’s The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is representative of the Renaissance and Ekins’ The Gross Clinic is from the Realism Period, they are differences in the painting, but there are similarities as well.  The most obvious similarity is the realistic depiction of the procedures that are being performed.  During the Renaissance and the Realism Period, realistic qualities were valued valued.  In fact the subjects are so realistic that they seem as if they were photographed.  The use of shadows as a tool to depict the unknown is also a focus of both periods.  Rembrandt uses this technique to shadow the dead man’s face while Eakins shadows the observers of the operation so that they seem to fade into the background.  The cadaver and the spectator’s have a role, but it does not matter who they are, therefore, the doctors and what they are doing that are most important to the paintings.  Both artists use light to illuminate the doctors who are teaching to symbolize the enlightening of their teaching.  Light is reflected from Dr. Gross’ forehead which draws the eye of the viewer to him and makes him the focal point before it takes in the patient and the scene.  It is the students that are bathed in light while watching Dr. Tulp.  Tulp is dressed in black and only his face reflects the light.  The light allows the faces of all the characters to be recognizable.  The contrast of the light of his face and the darkness of his garments make him the central figure of the painting.

The stylistic differences are also obvious.  The lines of the garments and the features of the

characters in The Gross Clinic are blurred except for Dr. Gross and those closest to him.  The accuracy of the characteristics is only found in the center of the painting.  The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, however, shows dimension through the attention to the lines in the clothing of the characters and the vivid characteristics of their facial features.  The brush strokes are smooth and imperceptible in Rembrandt’s painting while in Eakins’ they are obvious.  The setting in The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is much more formal and the background does not distract the eye from the subject which is typical of the Renaissance style.  The Gross Clinic takes place in an auditorium and has so many people that it seems busy.

The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt is typical of his early work. “His early work was devoted to showing the lines, light and shade, and color of the people he saw about him.” (Pioch)  During the Renaissance there was a focus on learning in science and the painting not only depict the doctors teaching and learning from the cadaver all that they could about the human anatomy without the help of modern technology, but it was a teaching tool as well.  The depiction of the muscles was accurate to what was known at the time.

The group portrait of Tulp, appointed ‘praelector anatomiae’ of Amsterdam’s surgeon guild in 1628, and seven of the guild’s members probably established his reputation immediately. All potential clients must have been impressed by the new vitality and pictorial richness he gave to the portraits. The picture still impresses us today by the dramatic concentration of the figures on Tulp’s demonstration of the dissection of a forearm. (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn)

 Rembrandt painted many portraits and this painting allowed him to capture the likeness of the prominent doctors of the Netherlands during this time.

The Gross Clinic by Eakins is also representative of his work.  Eakins, who studied in

France where he must have been slightly influenced by the beginning of Impressionism, was particularly interested in the human body.  During the Realism Period there was a focus on new technology and making the quality of life better.  The interest in learning more about the human body and medicine was on the minds of many people.

Thomas Eakins took a second course of anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in 1874, when he

attended surgical lectures and clinics presided over by Professor Samuel D. Gross. who was one

of America’s most distinguished and influential surgeons, physicians, anatomists, authors, and teachers. (The Gross Clinic)

Eakins painted the picture because he was interested in the human condition and was curious about human anatomy while he was a professor.  “He approached art as a branch of knowledge, studying as much drawing and anatomy as could be studied in Philadelphia before, in 1866.” (Jones)

Both Rembrandt and Eakins contributed to the world of art and interest in the area of medicine with the creation of their paintings, The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and The Gross Clinic.  Viewers cannot help but be intrigued when viewing these pictures that exhibit exhibit the knowledge about the human body centuries earlier.  accurate Ham


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