Rembrandt in the Operating Room

Rembrandt in the Operating Room

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

This summer as I was framing over a hundred pieces for an Open Studio event, my hands decided to rebel. At first it was my right hand. The thumb became a stiff rod in what I came to understand was a trigger finger. I could not bend it at all! I had some notion about what was up because of the Rembrandt painting of Dr. Tulp showing his students that the tendon he is holding in the forceps in his right hand controls the motion of the fingers that he is demonstrating with his left hand. Soon after my right thumb went out, the left one followed. I felt as though my thumbs had been slammed in a car door. And as a painter, I was desperate to fix my hands without doing further damage. The fear was choking.

As luck would have it, one of the best hand doctors in the region came to the Open Studio. I didn’t know it then, but found out when I was sent to him by my general practitioner. Our first line of defense was a shot of cortisone. Shots in your hands are terribly painful and I screamed, “I hate you,” at the doctor. Unfortunately, I seem to be allergic to cortisone and it exacerbated my situation. It also sent me running for an alternative cure. I spent months receiving massage, seeing an accupuncturist, wearing a brace, seeing a physical therapist. Nothing, no change. I finally conceeded that surgery might be the only solution.


Leonardo da Vinci, Anatomical Drawing of a Hand

For the doctor the proceedure was a rather simple thing, a ten minute operation that can be done under a local anesthetic. As you can see in da Vinci’s drawing there are bands that hold the tendons in place. The operation consists of cutting the band at the base of the thumb. My mantra to myself was — please make my hands strong and flexible.

I had the hands of Michelangelo’s “David” in mind.

The stitches were removed today. I still have some swelling and I don’t have full range of motion yet.  But the thumb bends well enough to handle a brush, and the doctor assured me that this would continue to improve. In the meantime, the left hand is going back into a brace to try to delay what may be the inevitable. I brought the doctor a print of the painting by Rembrandt and for a brief moment our worlds aligned.













Rembrandt: The Anatomy Lesson Was an Anatomy Lesson, Who Knew?

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp was Rembrandt’s first major commission. The name of each of the participants is known, as well as, the prisoner, who is being dissected.

In Svetlana Alpers’ book “Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and The Market” what is really going on here is described:

It has only recently been pointed out that while the doctor’s right hand exposes the muscles and tendons, his left hand is raised in a gesture which demonstrates company speech but to demonstrate that flexing of the fingers which enables us to hold or grasp object. He is in effect demonstrating how we use our hand.”