Although I could no longer save Adriaen, perhaps I could give his body form in the painting, give his death some kind of reality, restoring, at the very least, a sense that he was a human man and not just a corpse. (194)
In Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson: A Novel (Anchor Books, 2014), the story behind one of Rembrandt Van Rijn’s earliest successes comes to life in homage to the great artist’s ability to make the macabre positively luminous. In order to write this novel, Siegal, an American journalist and novelist who lives in Amsterdam, clearly did a great deal of research, and her book both informs and delights the modern reader interested in the artistic and scientific world of the Dutch Golden Age.
Siegal earned a BA in English at Cornell, completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and earned several fellowships towards researching and writing this novel. The Anatomy Lesson takes a decidedly different direction from the genre and tone of her first novel, A Little Trouble with the Facts (2008). This debut work featured a young and ambitious New York journalist investigating the mysterious death of a famed graffiti artist and was acclaimed for cleverly revamping the noir detective genre by wedding it to chick lit. The thread that connects her first novel to The Anatomy Lesson is art, clearly an area of expertise and a fascination for Siegal whose journalistic writing also focuses primarily on the art world of today and the past. This affection for art characterizes each page of The Anatomy Lesson. Readers who love art and enjoy imagining the worlds out of which famous artworks emerged will delight in this novel.
The Anatomy Lesson’s narrative structure mirrors the anatomizing process that served as the subject of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632).
Each chapter features subheadings that associate the book’s six central characters with a corresponding part of the body. The body is Adriaen, the condemned thief who becomes the subject of the anatomy and eventually the painting’s centerpiece. The hands are Dr. Tulp, the acting anatomist and the painting’s prosperous namesake. The heart is Flora, a “golden-hearted” peasant woman who loves Adriaen and is pregnant with his child (201). The mouth is Jan Fetchet, a hawker of curiosities whose wheeling and dealing peppered with mishaps recalls the Spanish picaresque anti-heroes of the seventeenth century. The mind is René Descartes, whom Siegal represents as a reluctant participant in the theatrical pomp of Amsterdam’s anatomical demonstrations. And finally the painter himself represents the eyes, which see well beyond the subjects that he renders artistically to observe much more of the story than any of the other characters thanks to his role as the painter of the distinguished surgeon’s guild coupled with what turns out to be a personal past connection with Adriaen. These perspectives on the events leading up to the painting’s execution are occasionally punctuated by four passages of “Conservator’s Notes, Transcribed from Dictaphone” by a modern-day character, Pia de Graaf, who describes what she is able to learn about the painting in the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery collection based on modern techniques of art analysis. Her observations play on yet another kind of “dissection,” that of curators looking for clues about a painting’s process.
Overall, the pacing of this novel is quite good, and Siegal gives her reader a sense for what quotidian life might have been like in Amsterdam in the Dutch Golden Age. I especially enjoyed the way that the novel made the hand that is a focal point in Rembrandt’s painting into a thematic device. Dr. Tulp, the featured anatomist and surgeon, is referred to as “The Hand” in the chapters narrated from his perspective, and the novel develops a link between Tulp’s fascination with the hand and the influence of Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica wherein the author’s portrait features him dissecting a hand.
As the story progresses, we discover that Rembrandt’s past contains a traumatic experience involving a crushed hand in his family’s mill business, which leads him to reflect on the preservation of his own hand that allows him to paint Adriaen’s hand. This artistic act serves as a kind of redemption for Adriaen who, as a thief, had lost a hand as punishment for his crimes.
As with any work of historical fiction, the book faces the narrative challenge of weaving explanatory historical details into the fabric of the narrative. At times, Siegal accomplishes this feat elegantly, but at times the impressive amount of research that she did into the period fits uneasily into the focus on voice that the book’s narrative structure demands. For example, early in the story Rembrandt considers his less-than-ideal situation after moving to Amsterdam:
It’s infuriating to the painter. He took this position in Uylenburgh’s academy, thinking he’d sell better in this art-loving city than in his mill town of Leiden. As it turned out, joining Uylenburgh’s studio wasn’t exactly an appointment. He had to ‘lend’ his dealer a thousand guilders to become an ‘investor’ in the business. He recently learned, too, that he wasn’t technically allowed to work as a master in Amsterdam, because of city regulations that prohibited outsiders from joining the Sint Lucas Guild, the artists’ guild. To keep a painting practice in the city, he had to work for a studio for a minimum of two years. In this sense, he is indentured to Uylenburgh for the time being until he can get his own membership in the guild. (23)
On the one hand, this information is interesting to the reader curious about the exploitation that great artists suffered due to mercenary business practices of the period. Yet on the other hand, the attempt at free indirect discourse comes across as something more like a historical aside, especially since Rembrandt’s economic frustrations do not play a major role in the narrative as it plays out. That said, such moments do not wrest the reader from the world of the novel, and the experience of reading The Anatomy Lesson remains enjoyable throughout.
Readers who are art lovers should check out this book. Siegal brings the influences that scholars have noted in Rembrandt’s painting to life by having her character reflect on Mantegna’s radical use of perspective in “Lamentation,” Michelangelo’s fascination with human and divine hands in the Sistine Chapel, representations of the Apollo and Marsyas story, and Leonardo’s artistic theory. If you enjoy novels by Tracy Chevalier, Susan Vreeland, or Cathy Marie Buchannan, you should certainly add this book to your reading list.
Sarah Parker is Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville University, Florida where she teaches courses in Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, and medical humanities. Her current research focuses on early modern medical treatises on popular errors. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from UNC-Chapel Hill and MAs from UNC-Chapel Hill and Middlebury College.