Old Master Paintings

A New Novel Brings Rembrandt’s Amsterdam to Life

By Scott Indrisek

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. The Hague, Mauritshuis.

NEW YORK – In January of 1632, the body of a hanged thief, Aris Kindt, was dissected in the public weighing house in Amsterdam. Conducted by Dr Nicolaes Tulp and attended by the city’s social and intellectual elite, the demonstration was immortalized by the painter Rembrandt van Rijn, who was just 26 when he received the commission from the Surgeon’s Guild. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, now in the Mauritshius museum, in The Hague, is one of the artist’s most intriguing and unforgettable masterpieces and the inspiration for Nina Siegal’s ambitious second novel. Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) brings the period and the characters vividly to life using fact and fiction. Among the personalities we meet are the surgeon, the condemned man, the young woman pregnant with his child, a philosopher and even a 21st-century art conservationist. And, of course, the painter himself. “I tried to remember that Rembrandt was a real person,” says Siegal. “Someone extraordinary, certainly, but still a human being.”  

The novelist talks about excavating the past and giving voice to an extraordinary cast of characters.

Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson has been explored in various non-fiction accounts. What compelled you to relate the genesis of the painting through a work of fiction?

My dad had a reproduction of the painting in his study when I was growing up and I looked at it often, with a mixture of terror and fascination. I think my mind was always inventing stories behind the painting – as one’s mind does, I think, with images so striking. It wasn’t until I started reading some of the history behind the painting that I began writing real “scenes” in my head. That happened when I first read William Hecksher’s iconographical study of the painting in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Heckscher described something incredible: he said that Rembrandt was commissioned to commemorate a public dissection at the town weigh house, the Waag, in Amsterdam, followed by a banquet and then a torchlight parade through town. The material seemed so vivid and enthralling to me that I felt sure it would captivate other readers, too.

How much is history and how much is your fictionalized account?

I read the art history books, which all had slightly different theories about how the painting happened, and then I decided which ones seemed right to me, and also which ones seemed most interesting to pursue from an authorial perspective. I tried not to choose the melodramatic options, but rather the ones that complicated the narrative and made the characters seem more realistic.

Some people have assumed that most of the book is based on the known historical facts. Although there is a lot of conjecture about those facts, the truth behind the story is unknown, so for me as a novelist it was all about making choices, and trying to make sure that those choices seemed not only plausible but dramatic and poetic as well. I tried to sail close to the factual shoreline, but a lot of the book is pure fiction.

Nina Siegal's second novel The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) brings the period and the characters vividly to life using fact and fiction.

You take the bold step of actually speaking in the first person from the perspective of Rembrandt and also René Descartes, who at the time was living in Amsterdam. Were you nervous about assuming their voices?

I was very nervous. Actually, although I spent about two years doing the research on the novel, I didn’t start writing Rembrandt or Descartes or even Tulp until much later in the process.

Rembrandt was the hardest to write, and I felt completely intimidated. One factor that made it a little easier was that I was advised in my research by Ernst van de Wetering, the world’s leading Rembrandt scholar, who kept telling me “Rembrandt is always a construction,” and “every generation invents its own Rembrandt.” By which he meant that it’s impossible to know what the “real” Rembrandt was like because there is very little historical documentation – only seven letters penned in his hand, for example, and all of them notes that say things like “Here’s the painting you requested, you owe me XX guilders.” And yet so much has been written about him. I found that very intriguing, and exciting.

There are various kinds of surgery and surgeons in the novel, not just Dr Tulp, who performs the anatomy for the assembled crowd but also Rembrandt, who “operates” on his canvas as if it were a living thing. Finally, we have the character of Pia, the present-day art conservator, engaged in the delicate work of restoring the canvas. As the novelist stitching together all of these stories, do you feel like writing is a kind of surgery?

I think it is, and that was one thing that really attracted me to the project. There are all these layers of surgery, both opening up and closing. For me, it had to do with excavating the history, like finding Kindt’s real criminal dossier in the Amsterdam city archives, and then closing up “the body” by writing a narrative whole. And the book is structured that way, with each of the characters named after an anatomical part – Rembrandt is “the eyes,” Descartes is “the mind,” Tulp is “the hands,” Flora is “the heart” – and the challenge was to make all these parts feel like they were all part of the same story.

You came to Amsterdam in 2006 on a Fulbright and ended up staying and so you’re familiar with the urban geography. Did you find yourself retracing the characters’ steps or envisioning yourself as someone who might have attended Dr Tulp’s lesson?

When I first arrived, I lived in a building that was built in 1624 on Dam Straat in the oldest part of the city, which is actually equidistant from the Dam, where Aris Kindt was executed, and the Waag in Nieuwmarkt, where the anatomical lesson of Dr. Tulp took place. Each one was about a five-minute walk from my house. Amsterdam is still very much a 17th-century city, the same way Prague can be a 14th-century city. Doing the research while living there made it very easy to conjure the sights, sounds, smells, and characters for the novel. I could easily identify people on the streets right now that I could use as models for my characters.

You must have spent a lot of time in front of Rembrandt's actual masterpiece. What did you discover about the painting over time? Did its meaning evolve for you?

The reproduction we had at home was very small, and very dark. The first time I saw the real thing was in 2006, when I came to Holland. In person, the painting is astonishingly colorful – the cheeks of the figures ruddy and the strands of hair individually defined – and each of the figures is life-size, which means that when you’re in the room with it you feel as if you’re actually with Tulp, Aris, and everyone. The Mauritshuis is a house museum, very intimate and cozy. I spent a great deal of time there, scribbling notes in my journal, listening to people’s conversations about it, noticing so many things I hadn’t noticed before.

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