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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Lost Genre

It's not often we find an ancient genre of painting that has absolutely no, equivalent in art today.  However in 1628, a painting of this genre was the spark that ignited the career of Rembrandt van Rijn. Personally, I would consider us fortunate now that we no longer see paintings of this genre, but then, I'm no great fan of Gray's Anatomy, Nip/Tuck, or any of the other "slice and dice" television shows, which are about the closest things we have today to what I'll call, for lack of a better term, the "anatomy lesson" genre in Dutch seventeenth century painting. Let me warn you, if you're the least big squeamish, skip the next two paragraphs.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1628,
Rembrandt van Rijn
The Rembrandt painting is his 1628 group portrait The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (left). In it, seven well-dressed men (not doctors or even medical students, by the way, but merely spectators), peer over the shoulder of the illustrious doctor/politician, Nicolaes Pietersz Tulp, as he demonstrates the workings of the exposed tendons of the equally illustrious murderer, Adriaen (Het Kind [the boy]) Adriaensz. The corpse is appropriately dead looking and modestly draped across the loins. And, considering some of the similar "group portraits" of this genre done by artists such as Pieter Van Miereveld's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (below, left) and Rembrandt's own Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman (below, right, 1656), it's in relatively good taste.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, 1656,
Rembrandt van Rijn
In contrast, Dr. Deyman seems to be demonstrating brain surgery having all too obviously exhausted the contents of the deceased's gaping torso. Though not as "gross" as Rembrandt's Dr. Deyman, the much earlier Miereveld painting seems to be in dire need of "crowd control" as the "anatomizer" puts on quite a show for the artist. The doctor and every other figure (16 altogether) look straight on at the viewer; except for the corpse, of course, which seems to be just a surprisingly healthy-looking prop.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer,
1617, Pieter Van Miereveld
Rembrandt's painting (above), with the cadaver's feet extending straight into the viewer's face is a compositional rip-off of the Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna's (pronounced Mon-TANE-ya) 1506 painting, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, from which the entire genre may have evolved. At least Mantegna, in exposing the nail holes in Christ's hands and feet, had good reason to explore the extreme foreshortening that makes this evocative masterpiece so striking, poignant, and emotionally powerful. The Dutch descendants (as seen at left) were often not even good group portraits. More accurately, they were souvenirs of grisly sideshows. The spectators paid exorbitant sums to the doctor for admission to the "surgical theater;" which included a group picture with the "noted" physician. Makes today's Gray's Anatomy seem like high art.
The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1506, Andrea Mantegna

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