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Painting of SurgeonsEssay

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Rembrandt and Eakins

Both the Dutch painter Rembrandt and the American painter Eakins employ "an illusionistic effect" in their paintings, through the combination of chiaroscuro and impasto (Bauer 29). This paper will discuss two paintings by the respective painters: Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and Eakins' The Gross Clinic (1875) and compare and contrast them.

While nearly a quarter of a millennium passes between the two oil paintings, their subject and approach are remarkably similar. Rembrandt, emerging from the Baroque period of art, where the dramatic fuses with the realistic, provides a glimpse into the world of autopsy in the 17th century. His use of illumination gives the painting an arresting quality, as the main light is focused on the cadaver, over which the pupils of Dr. Tulp lean for a closer examination. In Eakins' painting, on the other hand, the artist is emerging from the Realist school in America, and thus offers a view into the lecture hall of Dr. Gross, where surgery on a live patient is underway. The subject is even more dramatic, but its approach less stylized in terms of chiaroscuro (although this effect is evident in the work). The two works compared together show the advancement in both medicinal knowledge and artistic technique.

When contrasted, they offer the viewer different sensations. Rembrandt's typical technique of creating faces that make the viewer feel as though he himself were the subject of the painting rather than the painting itself is what first catches the viewer's attention: in it, the two pupils in the rear-center and center-left of the canvas peer over the shoulders of their classmates to stare straight at the viewer of the painting, as though they were assessing him while he simultaneously assessed them. This is a favorite technique of Rembrandt and is found in many of his paintings, bringing the viewer out of his world and into Rembrandt's.

It is evident in Rembrandt's works that he "received," as Seymour Slive states, "decisive impulses from the Caravaggesque style" (18). He used the impasto technique with brilliant effect, as though he were sculpting with paint. By layering thick oil paint, which has weighty viscosity and takes longer to dry than acrylic or watercolor paints, on his canvas, Rembrandt could "etch" into the deposit of paint and mold and shape it to convey wrinkles of skin or fabrics or shadows. His impasto method gave body to his works, which allowed them to be more expressive in parts that the painter wanted emphasized. For example, in The Anatomy Lesson, the faces of both teacher and pupil leap from the canvas because 1) they are brilliantly painted with exquisite facial expressions and 2) they are built up using the impasto technique so that they literally stand off the canvas creating the illusory three-dimensional effect that gives such body to a Rembrandt painting. In this manner, it is as if he is using the relief technique of sculptors to make the face "pop" and stand out more effectively. The face is certainly what captivated Rembrandt most and it is there that he excelled -- depicting with impasto and chiaroscuro qualities of flesh and fabric that would otherwise be difficult to depict so realistically.

Eakins' uses the same impasto technique when crafting his painting of the Gross clinic: his canvas is stacked with paint, and the strokes implemented almost like an Impressionist painter -- yet what Eakins is producing is not an impression of the clinic but rather an authentic rendering of a particular moment in time -- that of a surgery lesson conducted by Dr. Gross. Eakins himself stated that he would "paint as heavily [with impasto] as I like, but never leave any roughness" (Eakins 303), and in this sense he wished to emulate the style of Velasquez.

The tonality of the painting is dark and earthy, similar to a Rembrandt painting, but it is not as dramatically darkened in the way a Rembrandt is, nor is the lighting strategically aimed for dramatic effect: rather, it is natural to the circumstances, with the main source of light appearing to come from overhead to aid in the surgery below. The students in the background are less defined and consist of mainly two tones, while the face and bearing of Dr. Gross steals the show, the light reflecting off the dome of his brow, and his eyes professing confidence and mastery.

In comparison with the Rembrandt painting, the Eakins appears to be more Impressionistic, however. Rembrandt's characters appear more lifelike and real than Eakins -- and this may simply be because of Rembrandt's talent and technique: in the Rembrandt there is a fine mix of transparent glazes and impasto painting. The impasto is not nearly as across the canvas as it is in the Eakins, where almost every stroke is visible, as in a Van Gogh. In the Rembrandt, the strokes disappear into the painting in places and one is left gazing at something more akin to a photograph than a painting.

The Eakins painting, on the other hand, is much more 19th century in its technique. Almost pointillist in passages (especially in creating the effect of light shining on the surgeons hair), the painting contains less usage of the transparent glaze, which helped Rembrandt and Velazquez to eliminate the "roughness" that Eakins sought to elude. Yet, that roughness is more or less discernible in the Clinic because the technique is more reliant on the impasto method.

Both paintings portray real moments in time, Rembrandt's depicting Dr. Tulip during the annual public dissection in Amsterdam in 1632; Eakins' depicting Dr. Gross at the Jefferson Medical College. Yet, of the two, Eakins' appears to be the more grisly even though it depicts a live surgery on a living patient and Rembrandt's depicts the dissection of a corpse. In the Rembrandt, the corpse is relatively clean, almost glowing with brightness as the main source of light in the painting, while Dr. Tulip simply points at a section of a dissected arm. There are no tools or instruments for cutting visible in the scene.

In the Eakins', on the other hand, the act of cutting is underway, as one surgeon leans over the patient and another hands tools to a third. It is the 19th century equivalent of an ER and the squeamishness with which its audience likely attended the painting is evident in the reaction of the maid to Dr. Gross' immediate right: she recoils in horror, hiding her face behind her arm, while the man leading the surgery smiles to himself with wry satisfaction. Rembrandt presents a picture of cleanly anatomical discovery. Eakins presents an exciting glimpse into the surgical frontier. On the table, doubled over, is the patient, as though he were feeling every slice of the knife and every twist of the clamp -- though such is highly unlikely as the patient would have been anesthetized.

Thus, what really distinguishes the two works from one another aside from technique and the critical, artistic use of impasto (in the Rembrandt) versus the heavy, uniform use of it (in the Eakins), is the manner in which the subject of the physician's world is depicted. In the 17th century representation, that world is sterile, ordered, clean, bright, stoic, and disinterested. In the 19th century representation, that world is darker, less sterile, with many more bodies present (thus making it a far greater spectacle), and far fewer disinterested faces (they are either actively engaging in the work, recoiling in horror, passively watching, taking notes, assisting, or -- as the Dr. himself is doing -- relishing in the scene and the achievement at hand). With the painting by Eakins, a celebration of surgical prowess is underway -- yet one that is likely to only be appreciated by an audience that understands the usefulness or meaning of the subject. It is a moment in American history that will help to define the future of the country's technical and medical achievements -- and that sense is fully evident in the face and bearing of Dr. Gross.

In the Rembrandt, one discovers not so much a sense of accomplishment as a sense of propriety, skill, and calculation. What Rembrandt depicts most miraculously is not the advancement of learning but rather the expression of humanity in the characters depicted. These are not impressionistic representations but rather true to life persons who seem to be as much aware of us as we are of them. That is not the case in the Eakins painting, which allows the viewer to look at it unobserved by anyone in the painting.

In conclusion, Rembrandt and Eakins depict similar subjects in two different centuries, using similar techniques -- yet they produce two very different works with very different effects. Rembrandt's tempered use of impasto and glaze allows him to produce a smooth, calm, sterile reproduction of a dissection in 17th century Amsterdam. Eakins' heavy use of impasto allows him to produce a painting that is both realistic and Impressionistic, where… [END OF PREVIEW]

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