A Picture is Worth….

Nina Siegal The Anatomy Lesson
…At least 290 moving pages of this stunning novel. It took Siegal 6 years to write, and I am so glad she persevered. It is a fascinating account of the history behind Rembrandt’s first painting to give him international fame (and the first he signed using only Rembrandt, no initials). The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholis Tulp, was commissioned by Amsterdam’s Surgeons’ Guild 1632. The novel has an intriguing cast of characters in the painting, each voiced in alternating chapters, each very distinctive and true to the period.

There is Aris, (the body), the one handed coat thief, who becomes the corpse of the painting. Flora (the heart) is pregnant with his child, and knows he didn’t commit the crime and presents this information to Rembrandt. Jan Fetchet (the mouth) is a curio collector who also acquires medical cadavers. Dr Tulp (the hands) is a prominent surgeon, intent on debunking William Harvey’s new circulation theory while harkening back to roman Galen. He does one public dissection a year, on an executed criminal. Rene Descartes (the mind) is a foreigner who attends the dissection to understand where the human soul resides. Pia (the story/narrator/discoverer) is a 21st century contemporary art conservator examining the painting, and making astonishing discoveries in the paint.

Rembrandt (the eyes) here is an unknown, in Amsterdam, an outsider and indentured, here because he impressed some burghers with biblical paintings. But he speaks in colour and texture, with humour and insight, and finally, painting/living with truth and justice. After hearing Flora “I want to make him whole again.” he changes the initial painting, covering the scars and restoring the severed hand! He did not want the painting to glorify man’s cruelty, brutality. Instead it is filled with the emotion of loss, while the book describes the power of love. I have seen a copy (unknown artist) in the University of Edinburgh’s Fine Art Museum which shows an extraordinary, ambitious painting. Someday perhaps a journey to see the original.
This will appeal to any one interested in the history of medicine, art history or historical fiction.

Some sons are easier to love than others.”
“We are working in allegory my dear.”
“He will go on painting until he gets it all right.”
“She had loved him, Fetchet bought him, Dr. Tulp had claimed him for science, and I had wanted him for art. All of us sought his flesh. All of us have wanted to make something of this man’s body. But he did not belong to any of us. He was only Aris the thief.”
“This, I thought, was a portrait of human cruelty. It told of how men ravage one another in search of truth. How they carve each other up in the name of justice, and how they fail to see their own brutality.”

Read On
Vanora Bennett Portrait of an Unknown Woman
Elizabeth Kostova The Swan Thieves
Donna Tartt The Goldfinch
Cathy Marie Buchanan Painted Girls
See also WG Sebald 1999 The Rings of Saturn
Laird Hunt 2006 The Exquisite
Siegal has also written A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008)
4 stars
I felt the ending was very rushed, but perhaps I just wanted more. Particularly the voice of Rembrandt. Fetchet also had some wonderful lines. It was also immediately evident that it was of the Iowa Writers workshop ilk.
RPL has a copy, reserve now!