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Set 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 paintingsCommissioned 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 acuirer of medical cadavers; René Descartes who attended the dissection in the course of his uest 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 wayBringing 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


10 thoughts on “The Anatomy Lesson

  1. says:

    Fascinating Fictional Backstory of a Famous Rembrandt PaintingThe setting of this novel is similar to that of The MiniaturistSee my review of The Miniaturist here That is they are both set in seventeenth century Amsterdam although parts of The Anatomy Lesson are also set in Leiden and other parts of HollandThis is a period I find endlessly fascinatingBoth of these novels are written by women and highlight the brutality of the Dutch justice and penal systems of the time as well as the cruel and Puritanical code of behavior of seventeenth century Holland Both books feature characters who are in trouble with the law as well as highlighting artists and artisansBut there the similarity endsNina Siegal has taken the famous painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and concocted a very believable and compelling fictional backstory for itIn Amsterdam at the time anatomy lessons were big social events and entertainments The attendees had to purchase expensive tickets to enter These dissections were attended by Amsterdam Guild members and by intellectuals from all over Europe view spoilerThe body being dissected is that of Aris Kindt the alias of Adriaan Adriaanszoon a criminal condemned to hanging for armed robbery That is actual historical fact hide spoiler


  2. says:

    This novel was heavily researched and unfotunately the research shows in the diction over description pace a case of too much scholarship and not enough imagination The use of a present day conservator's notes juxtaposed with the 17th century story is skillfully done but the notes' foreshadowing of story elements becomes a little too pat However the Anatomy Lesson will appeal to those who enjoy historical novels featuring famous artists and thinkers like those of Tracy Chevalier and Susan Vreeland


  3. says:

    Nina Siegal's novel transports us to 17th Century Amsterdam where Rembrandt has received a commission to paint members of the Surgeon's Guild observing the anatomist Dr Nicholaes Tulp There are six important characters who each have chapters named after the part of the body that they represent The Body is Adriaen a thief who has been condemned to die by hanging The Mouth is Jan Fetchet a collector of curiosities who also acuires bodies for medical dissection The Hands refers to Dr Tulp who will be dissecting the body The Mind is Rene Descartes the philosopher who is trying to determine where the soul resides Flora the woman who loves the condemned Adriaen and who carries his unborn child is The Heart The artist Rembrandt the painter of the masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp represents The Eyes There are also a few chapters where a 21st Century art historianconservator tells us the secrets that x rays reveal about the paintingScenes from everyday life to the mobs at the hanging seem very real and well researched Both the novel and Rembrandt's painting show the humanity of Adreaen who had been abused as a child Adreaen had scars from whippings brands burned into his skin and his right hand cut off as punishments for thefts But Rembrandt painted him with compassion showing death with dignity with his scars removed in the center of the luminous painting This novel is recommended to art lovers and readers who enjoy historical fiction


  4. says:

    Nina Siegel's The Anatomy Lesson is one of those wonderful novels that's as solid in its realization as it is in its conception The novel tells the back back story of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson that wonderful work commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons in 1632 The surgeons and city functionaries are pictured gathered round a corpse as one of their group explains the anatomy of the forearm The light in the picture falls downward illuminating the corpse while placing the other figures in shadow making death look like life and life like deathThe novel is written in an array of first person voices with occasional third person framing all of whom are identified in ways suitable to the dissection process We have The Body Adriaen Adriaenszoon the thief whose execution will provide the corpse for the dissection; The Hands Dr Nicolaes Tulp who conducts the autopsy; The Heart Adriaen's lover Flora pregnant with his child who hopes to win his acuittal or failing that to claim his remains for burial; The Mouth Jan Fetchet dealer in curiosities and all manner of goods who also serves as preparator for the Surgeon's Guild claiming and cleaning the bodies of the executed who will become the focus of dissections; The Mind René Descartes who like Dr Tulp dreams of finding the location of the soul within the body; and The Eyes Rembrandt himself with connections to every other character in the book from thief to surgeon We also get occasional excepts from the journal of a conservator working on the painting in the present dayI can claim no expertise on 17th Century Amsterdam or the practice of science within the city but it seems clear that the author has done her research carefully The details of the city its judicial processes the dissection the artistic process and the later work by the conservator all ring true and are presented in sufficient detail that the reader engages in a kind of historical and professional learning while being carried along on the tide of the narrativeThis is a book that engages the reader on many levels simultaneously eliciting consideration of scientific ethics of the physical versus the spiritual self of politics and self promotion of they ways in which lives unroll along clear but unlikely paths Whether your greatest interest lies in historical fiction the history of medicine or the history of art this novel will offer you a rich rewarding read


  5. says:

    Did you ever want to know the real story behind an old painting? So did Nina Siegal which resulted in The Anatomy Lesson a beautiful semi fictionalized story behind one of Rembrandt's most famous paintingsIt’s the 31th of January 1632 on this day criminal Aris Kindt alias Aris the Kid is going to be hanged in Amsterdam Unknown to him however is that afterwards his body shall be used for the yearly public dissection of the Surgeon’s Guild which all kinds of people can attend and watch People like the body’s preparator Jan Fetchet the philosopher Rene Descartes and the future painter of this scene upcoming artist Rembrandt van Rijn Still none of these people care as much for Aris as Flora Aris’ pregnant lover who on this day is in a mad rush to save her beloved for the dissection table You might know the Dutch painter Rembrandt because of his most famous work The Nightwatch but it was a much earlier painting that brought the young artist his first fame and attention The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is a portrayal of an unusual subject a public dissection of a human body painted in a highly unusual way instead of the surgeon and the wealthy elite the corpse stands at the center Why did the artist decide to do this? Who is the dead man lying there and why is this macabre act even the subject of a painting? As an art historian these are uestions I am trained to ask and research myself but I was thrilled to find out that Siegal did than research she added a whole story to it that brought the painting alive in numerous waysBecause even though I’m very familiar with the real story behind the painting Siegal’s fictional story brought things to my attention that I never considered Like Rembrandt’s possible bond with the criminal with both men being born in Leiden or how the addition of Flora added so much to Aris Further Siegal isn’t only a master at bringing her characters alive but also 17th century Amsterdam Maybe I’m biased because I studied there but the descriptions of the dirty streets and the crowded canals were so realistic that it felt like I was really there But although I very much enjoyed reading this book at a certain point my own art historian knowledge got in the way For I’m so familiar with Rembrandt’s career and the real story behind this painting that a lot of events in the story weren’t a surprise for me; for example I already knew the mystery of Aris’ right hand Therefore I found the story entertaining but never surprising Still I would certainly recommend this book to lovers of art history and people interested in reading about the Netherlands during the Golden Age Siegal has certainly done her research well and her charming characterizations and city descriptions will certainly win readers over For me I’ll give this book 35 stars


  6. says:

    I really wanted to like this book I teach college English and I freuently team teach with a history teacher We are always on the lookout for appropriate engaging books to use in book clubs and this seemed perfect After reading the glowing reviews here I was excited to receive a galley to review I was however disappointed in the book and won't be recommending it to my studentsWhile the choice to present each chapter from the point of view of one of several characters was intriguing the author did not do enough to distinguish the voices of these characters from one another The only concession to personal voice I saw was one character's use of were in place of was as in He were going to do right by me Even this small bit of personalization was abandoned about half way through the book With all of the other characters the reader can figure out who the speaker is from context but there is very little opportunity to bond with the characters to the degree one would expect from first person because every character talks the same Siegal clearly did her research for this book but again the style interfered with the smooth integration of that research First person is perhaps not the best vehicle for the exposition necessary to explain the philosophical and spiritual intricacies of the characters particularly since most of the story leans heavily on dialogThe shift from third person present tense to first person past tense and then back again was jarring and seemed unnecessary to me but that might just be my personal bias As a composition teacher I have grown to be very sensitive to such shifts Overall the situation is interesting and the history is credible but the gimmicks in the execution of this book are heavy handed and clumsy


  7. says:

    They say that a “picture is worth a thousand words” So how many is a painting worth? What is the story behind a painting? What secrets do the models hold? Nina Siegal explores this theme in “The Anatomy Lesson” based on “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”; a painting by none other than RembrandtSiegal’s premise follows the perspective of several character involved in the end produce of Rembrandt’s painting the thief whose body is dissected and is the basis of the painting his lover who is carrying his child Rene Descarte Rembrandt himself and the curio who procures the body Add in a modern art historian restoring the painting in contemporary times and “The Anatomy Lesson” has uite a castThe issue with the novel is Siegal’s decision to alternate each chapter with a different character’s narrative and even of 1st person and 3rd person views Although her intention is clearly to build layers and demonstrate the various lives and paths touched by one painting; the story is choppy and somewhat visceral The reader has difficulties truly “getting into” the story which can seem pointless at times and none of the characters truly resonate with the reader or evoke as much emotion as they potentially could On the other hand Siegal successfully delineates the voices with each character possessing his or her own personality and uirks There is no fear of confusing the key players Siegal marvelously weaves an illustrative story despite the character jumps in terms of language and visuals The text is flowery but not overly so and is historically accurate Often times the reader will see the plot play out like that of a vivid film “The Anatomy Lesson” has a special element which can’t be exactly pinpointed but it sure encourages page turningWith progression “The Anatomy Lesson” becomes much stronger and compelling as Siegal find her wave and rides it The text is natural and the detective esue connections between the characters are interesting and answer any uestionsloose ends which readers may have This adds an essence of mystery but without any pent up tension or dead ends The negative aspect of this is that the reader just begins to fall deep into one character’s storyline when the chapter ends and bring out about another narrative This may have been a techniue to build the suspense but I found it flighty and inconsistent to the story arc Despite any of my complaints “The Anatomy Lesson” builds depth halfway through and begins to add moral lessons The reader will contemplate on how much lays in what can’t be seen while being gratified by the story Siegal’s text is a fast and accessible 1 2 read but it isn’t fluffy and is instead very ‘real’ simple but illuminating as well The climax of the novel is strong and emphasizes the moral and philosophic traits of the tale but without “trying too hard” to prove a point Again Siegal leaves the reader in a position to dive deep into personal thoughts Sadly the conclusion is a bit rushed and weaker in comparison to the rest of the novel especially with the spiritual themed ending pages On a whole “The Anatomy Lesson” doesn’t round out well or feel properly “closed” The most impressive note of the novel is that the story takes place in one single day but is captivating enough that it feels longer and carried out “The Anatomy Lesson” combines elements of a short story or novella but incorporates a strong HF novel format An Author’s Note exploring the historical merits of story is absent there is a slight note in the beginning but details on historical liberties would have been welcomeOverall “The Anatomy Lesson” isn’t perfect but Siegal’s passion for writing and talent is clear but needs some work The novel is inconsistent and straddles between a 3 and 4 star rating At the same time one can feel what the book ‘could be’ and therefore I would read from Siegal in the future “The Anatomy Lesson” is recommended for HF and art history lovers who seek a uick read but without the fluff of many other HF novels


  8. says:

    Psyched to read this novel by a grad school friend immediately after reading her former housemate's essay collection The Empathy Exams I don't remember them having stuff up on the same day during Ethan Canin's workshop Fall 2005 but it's good to see their writing again now fully formed in print In April 2006 somehow eight years ago there was a party at my place after a Deborah Eisenberg reading which wound up interrupted as soon as it started by tornado sirens and hail on the auditorium's tin roof and then an F2 tornado tearing through Iowa City The reading was canceled but people still came over for the party I'd bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate the author's winning of a Fulbright to study a painting in Amsterdam and write a novel about it Eight years later that novel is here It's always good to see an idea go from conception to publication of a novel I totally enjoyed it's one of those bold historical novels that animates the famous dead Descartes Rembrandt and the anonymous The novel informs us that the Rembrandt painting is structured as a pyramid with a corpse laid out horizontally and physicians looking on while the novel itself is structured like an inverted pyramid beginning with a series of first person narrators that come into focus ending with the soul of the thief who serves as the anatomical host Freytag's pyramid is also in play and this gathers steam as it approaches the anatomy lesson that serves as the basis for Rembrandt's painting The tone for the most part suggests the 1600s by lightly deploying unobtrusive and flowing inversions of syntax The tone is also for the most part good natured and a few times even almost gives into farce which is maybe the gravitational pull of historical novels featuring famous folks? There's an awesome 1600s take for example on the Monty Python sketch involving the sale of a dead parrot The author has some fun with the various first person narrators particularly The Mouth a curios dealer aptly named Fetchet but there's also some serious soul animation going on that parallels thematic discussions Once the structure coheres Rembrandt's chapters are titled The Eyes Descartes' chapters are titled The Mind the thief's chapters are titled The Body etc the characters seem alive as does the setting and era The way the mind and body and perception and mechanical movements combine to suggest the soul the narrators combine to produce a vitality that is in effect the animated soul of any novel worth reading Very cool to reanimate the forgotten histories of a painting in which the physicians are searching for the soul Much research seems to have been done but not too much it's not overwhelmed with the facts in fact the historical facts are like the anatomical details of a human body For the body to live it needs breath the author definitely breathes life into its characters and the era and it does so in a way that now makes me consider the spirit that animates my hands as I type this


  9. says:

    Disclaimer ARC via Netgalley Rembrandt van Rijn There is something about his work and when everyone thinks of Rembrandt they think of Amsterdam and the Night Watch Famous and special But Rembrandt’s other paintings are great and his house is worth a visit too For me Rembrandt’s paintings work because of the uiet and mystery that exists in each one In some ways that is like Amsterdam where a twist or turn can lead to someplace unexpected – such as the hidden Catholic church almost in the Red Light District The Anatomy Lesson is also a famous Rembrandt paint and has that sense of uiet mystery Nina Siegal’s novel is like a Rembrandt painting Siegal’s novel is told from several view points each connected in some way to the painting There is Dr Tulp’s wife Rembrandt Descartes Kid Aris Fetchet and Flora In the present day there is a Pia whose restoration and examination of the painting are used in part as a framing device Siegal manages to capture different voices for each of these diverse characters Flora is radically different in style and tone than Kid Aris More importantly there is a uiet power in how these stories are interlinked how paths cross and how friendships are lost or created The sense of Amsterdam as well as the sense of the characters evolves slowly in many ways like the crafting of paint A stoke here a change in color there Rembrandt becomes than just the ambitious artist Fetchet than just a collector of oddities Flora than a woman in love and Aris than a simple body How these details and back stories are revealed is slight like the presence of the barking dog or the girl in gold but the smallest detail is wielded by Siegal like a brush transporting the slight detail into an item of importance The book feels like the literary offspring of Vermeer and Rembrandt There are a few series that deal with the story behind a painting One of these Every Picture Tells a Story has a half hour episode about this painting While the show does an interesting job of talking about the origins of the painting this book is far touching and wrenching in how one sees the painting The painting itself is about using the end of life to aid in the continuation of life but the book too is about life and what the absence of and ending of life means to those left behind Crossposted at Booklikes


  10. says:

    The Author's NoteI knew Rembrandt's masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp as a child for it hung in my father's study but I never knew its title or its origins During an art history seminar in grad school I was assigned to read a painting — ie unravel the narrative within it We were allowed to pick any painting; and as my professor clicked through slides of potential examples it showed upon the screen and I thought That one I'll finally find out the real story behind that paintingFrom that unravelling came her novel The Anatomy Lesson and I found it fascinating I am pretty nearly completely ignorant of art — just not a visual sort of person I have been interested in the stories behind other paintings when I've stumbled across a TV program The stories behind such art is probably interesting to me than the art itselfThe line between fact and fiction is decidedly blurred in this and I don't know enough to have known where that line lay I did know enough to know that the part that is the love story had to be fiction if for no other reason than too little is known about the criminal of the lesson to have left such a legacy But what of Rembrandt's approach to the painting? The prose is better than in many modern novels the characterizations good enough If I were lucky enough to stumble across such a story about another piece of art I would happily pick it up