This painting is difficult to approach for its sheer complexity: both a group portrait and a theatrical scene cohere into a pictorial narrative of visual, scientific and historic significance. Wikipedia offers engaging insight on this painting, as well as on Dr. Tulp, a very well known persona of the time. In fact, probably every person on this piece could be traced historically, a circumstance that contributes immediacy and panache to the canvas. It also redefines the painting as a document, adding a somewhat banal value of the bureaucratic kind, though today we examine even that detail through the screen of aesthetic and historic concern. If we ignore all of the information that links this piece with contemporary reality, the deep symbolism arising from the depicted close encounter with death will surface as the primary theme, which is the primary concern of this review.
It’s quite amusing to watch these men partake in a lesson, so much the event reminds me of actual classroom proceedings. There are the most active students, sitting in the first rows, attentive and perhaps overzealous, the moderately keen middle rows, and the back, where the bored and distracted sit (stand). This is a recognizable model of probably every lesson everywhere, in any era; a psychological impression of such sensibility as to render it universal and recognizable by anyone who ever attended school. The authoritative figure of the Doctor himself defines the mood as clinical, in both senses, and thus shapes the attitude towards death as to a matter of fact occurrence, which should be dealt with scientifically — an approach completely opposite to Renaissance depictions of saintly martyrdoms (the corpse belongs to a known criminal) and inherent to Protestant worldly pragmatism.
Rembrandt chose a classic pyramid shape for the composition. One figure presides over the whole configuration, while the laying body serves as its basis and the doctor forms the right corner. Moreover, he used an effective device to scatter the crowded mass and assist the viewer in absorbing the multitude of visual data: participants are clustered, into other geometrical forms. The three central figures make up an inner triangle, the two right most men describe an arch, and the two left most a simple line. To further vary the geometry, almost each jabot presents a different shape, either due to gravity, or by light manipulation (the variety in these textile adornments also relieves the bothering sameness of the facial hair, despite the nearly ridiculous diversity of the mustaches).
Finally, the artist subjected the light to the thematic purpose of the painting, carefully illuminating every individual portrait. Rembrandt emphasizes the abysmal gap between the living and the dead by way of creating a powerful contrast: the bodies of the former are enshrouded in black and their expressions are well lit, whereas the face of the latter is in shadow, while his torso and chest focus most of the light. I think that this confrontation may point towards both the physical (the bodies) and moral and spiritual (facial expressions and light) divergence, which, once again, is one of the main themes of this magnificent piece.