Review: The Anatomy Lesson

The Anatomy Lesson, Nina Siegal


Published March 11, 2015 by Nan A.Talese, 288 pages.

Source: Edelweis


18077844Set on a single day in the Dutch Golden Age, this engrossing historical novel brilliantly imagines the complex story behind one of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings

Commissioned by the Amsterdam surgeon’s guild, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” was the first major work by Rembrandt to be proclaimed a masterpiece. The novel opens on the morning of the medical dissection, and, as they prepare for that evening’s big event, it follows several characters: a one-handed coat thief called Aris the Kid, who is awaiting his turn at the gallows; Flora, the woman pregnant with his child who hopes to save him from the noose; Jan Fetchet, a curio collector who also moonlights as an acquirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes, who attended the dissection in the course of his quest to understand where the human soul resides; and the 26-year old young master himself, who feels a shade uneasy about his assignment. Then there’s Pia, an art restorer who is examining the painting in contemporary times. As the story builds to its dramatic and inevitable conclusion, the events that transpire throughout the day sway Rembrandt to change his initial composition in a fundamental way. Bringing to life the vivid world of Amsterdam in 1632, The Anatomy Lesson offers a rich slice of history and a textured story by a masterful young writer.

In this book we follow the development of Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” from its commision by the ambitious Dutch surgeon Dr. Tulp, to the thought process behind the painting and the beginning of the work by Rembrandt, and then to the restorer looking down on the masterpiece in the future.  I really liked that Siegal had all the action take place on the day of the anatomy lesson, yet still gave so much life to the story of Aris the Kid, Flora his lover, Rembrandt himself, and Dr. Tulp.  

There are clearly no spoilers here, Aris is hung or the painting would not exist.  As the story begins Aris is in jail and awaiting the hangman while Flora learns he is to be hanged that day.  Her hope to save him for her unborn son’s sake paired with Aris’ acceptance of his fate was quite moving and sad when you know the resolution.  Siegal gives depth the Aris’ story, so he becomes so much more than just the thief who by the chance of fate is memorialized in a masterpiece by Rembrandt.  He’s a man who loved, who was hurt; a man who was wronged in life and did wrongs himself but still gave happiness-a man with a real life and not just a body in a painting.  

Siegal also gives us a peek into the life of Rembrandt as a child and as a working artist which I enjoyed.  The Art Institute of Chicago is one of my favorite places in the world, I love to look at the art, but do not spend enough time thinking about the artists themselves.  So I really liked the humanizing of the painter as well as the subject in this case.  The dealer in curiosities who also served as the assistant to Dr. Tulp was probably the most dislikeable character, just kind of a shady guy, however, he also made the process more interesting.

One of the questions that Dr. Tulp tries to answer in the anatomy lesson is where is the physical evidence of Aris’ corruption?  How can the body show the thief’s character?   Descartes is trying to find where in the body the soul resides and so attends the lecture to try to gain evidence.  This was one of the notes that fell flat for me, it seemed to be overreaching and unnecessarily dry.  Siegal did an excellent job painting her own picture and placing the reader in the Netherlands and into the time period, but she went too far I think with trying to give her own lesson.  Dr. Tulp’s lecture itself was also very dry and I admit I just skipped over much of it.  I would say the same thing about the restorer’s passages.  They were interesting, but I did not feel they added to the story and I could have done without them.

What really struck me when I finished the Anatomy Lesson was how this man’s death was a commodity for so many.  Aris the Kid was immortalized by Rembrandt, but it took this book to make him a man again, not just a piece of art.  

This book definitely left me thinking.  If you’re an art lover or historical fiction fan you should check it out and I hope you do love it.

3 stars

Thank you Nan A.Talese and edelweis for this advance copy for review.

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