Nina Siegal brings Rembrandt to life

If you are like many of the bookworms on our staff who are itching for a new read after having devoured Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, then you are going to want to mark your calendars.

Author Nina Siegal is coming to PEM to talk about THE ANATOMY LESSON, her new novel which imagines the story and lives behind one of Rembrandt’s most famous masterpieces, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.


Meet the Author: Nina Siegal presents THE ANATOMY LESSON

Presentation followed by booksigning and reception
Tuesday, March 11th
7 PM – Free
Peabody Essex Museum, Morse Auditorium
Set in Amsterdam in 1632, the novel recreates the lives of a young Rembrandt as he is commissioned to paint the now famous scene, the young widow of the executed criminal on the dissection table, the curio collector who secured the cadaver, Dr. Tulp himself, and even philosopher René Descartes, who was actually present at the event depicted in the painting.
High Res image of the Anatomy Lesson

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Photo courtesy Nina Siegal

The author, who’s a busy mom on top of being a busy author preparing to travel to the US from her home in Amsterdam, took some time to talk to us about her history with Rembrandt, the novel, and her extensive research that went into it.

Q: You’ve written for Art in America, ArtNews and acted as editor-in-chief of Time Out Amsterdam. Was the idea for this novel born out of so much arts writing?

A: Actually, yes, in part. In 2004, I visited the Netherlands for the first time when I was working as an international art market reporter for Bloomberg News. I went to cover The European Fine Art Fair (Tefaf), and I spent about 11 days in Maastricht. While there, I visited the Robert Noortman gallery (Noortman Master Paintings), which happened to have three Rembrandt portraits in its possession at that time. I had never, as far as I knew, spent a great deal of time standing in front of a Rembrandt painting, but I was awed and moved those three works, and the people he painted really captured my imagination. It was the first time I encountered Rembrandt’s true genius, which I think is his ability to capture not just the likeness, but the soul of a person, in paint. I think it’s hard to see that in reproductions. You need to stand in front of the work for a while, which is what I had the opportunity to do in Maastricht.I have covered the art world as a reporter for about a decade now, starting at Bloomberg and then for various art magazines you mention as well as Art & Auction, W. Magazine, and the Art Newspaper in London, and now I’m a regular contributor on art and culture for the International New York Times. I never formally studied art history in school, but I grew up in a house full of art books (my grandfather and mother both collected them) so I looked at a lot of pictures growing up, and read a lot about art. When I was a graduate student at Iowa doing my MFA in Fiction (in 2005), I took an art history class, just to break things up a bit. It was a seminar on the iconography of painting, and we were assigned to “read” a painting, any painting. I chose The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp because I had sort of lived with it growing up. My dad, who is a doctor, had a small reproduction of it hanging in his study in our house. I never knew the story of that painting, or even that it was a Rembrandt. But because I had recently become familiar with Rembrandt, I now wanted to find out more. So I started reading about “The Anatomy Lesson.” And then I was hooked, I just couldn’t stop.

Q: What do you make of the trend to pen novels around classic paintings, such as yours and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch? Why are they proving to be fertile ground for full length novels? And why now?

A: I thought of it as a kind of strange coincidence that Donna Tartt’s novel came out this year and my book is coming out now too, which is especially interesting because of the Frick show of the traveling Mauritshuis paintings, but maybe it’s not a coincidence. Maybe there’s a bit of a zeitgeist feeling in the air, something to do with an interest in looking back at a Golden Age, when life seemed more glittery or maybe simpler. Of course, I didn’t know that Tartt was working on The Goldfinch until I found out about it from a rejection letter — her publisher turned down my book with a very nice compliment about how “two such deserving novels shouldn’t have to compete on the same list.” I liked that rejection letter quite a bit.  I was conscious, of course, of Tracy Chevalier’s 1999 novel (the movie, and her other novels focused on paintings) before I started writing mine, but I had a very different idea about what kind of book mine would be — which is to say, I wanted it to be very different from hers.

My book is quite a bit darker, more gruesome, and I guess that’s in part because the painting is, too. And there’s so much more that’s known about Rembrandt and his life and working method than there is about Vermeer, that I knew my novel would involve intensive research. I think the territory is fertile in part because these Old Master paintings have so much in them — so much that can be explored — history, beauty, layers of meaning, interesting social context. I think the fact that the Dutch Golden Age created so many great artists makes it a period that we are curious about — since it was a fertile ground for the artists of its time. Part of what’s surprising is that all these paintings are in the collection of the Mauritshuis, which I guess says more about how incredibly inspiring the paintings are of that particular trove.

Q: We like seeing all of this attention to the Dutch Golden Age as we have always been fascinated with that time and place. Also, there’s the recent book Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. What would you say is fueling this interest?  Does it have anything to do with the newly renovated Rijksmuseum?

A: I couldn’t speak for the other authors — though Russell [Shorto, author of Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City] is a friend and we have talked about it a bit — but I think for me, Amsterdam in the Golden Age is in a certain way quite analogous to New York City right now. I grew up in New York, and felt it was the center of the universe, with all the world’s commerce, trade goods, and people, flowing through its busy, exciting streets. Amsterdam in the 1630s (my period) and through the century was the hub of global commerce, a city that operated around the first stock exchange, a city of free thought and secular ideas in an age when you couldn’t take that for granted in most of Europe (like you can’t take that for granted in the rest of the US today either), and it was also a place where people could get anything from anywhere in the world. I suppose that was part of the draw for me, and part of what made it easy to project some of my ideas about my characters into the novel I wrote that’s set 400 years ago. Maybe that’s what is fueling the interest now. (I started writing my novel in 2006, when the Rijksmuseum was closed, and I finished it at the end of 2012, so the Rijksmuseum wasn’t part of my equation, I’m afraid. I never got to see it until this spring!)

Q: What was it about Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson that particularly grabbed you?

A: When I took that art history course in grad school that I mentioned above, one of the first things I read was that Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild to commemorate a public dissection that would’ve been attended by about 200-300 city noblemen and merchants (in addition to doctors), which would be followed by a banquet and then a torchlight parade through town. I thought: what? Then of course it was preceded by a hanging, which would provide the body for the dissection. I also learned that René Descartes, who was busy penning The Discourse on Method in Amsterdam, was probably in attendance at the event. Those facts were fascinating to me, so I kept reading more.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your research? How much of the lives of those in the painting were invented and how much was actually discovered?

A: I spent about two years doing research for the novel, with the help of a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing, supported by an NAF grant, and another big grant from the Jack Leggett Fellowship from Iowa. One of my early big discoveries was to find a full dossier of the crimes committed by Aris Kindt (the dead man in the painting) in a Justitieboek in the Amsterdam City Archives, which was written four days before he was sent to the scaffold. I used that as a skeleton, if you will, for the Aris Kindt narrative, and made a lot of the rest up. The Rembrandt, Descartes and Tulp sections required a lot of research, but I fictionalized a lot of those stories as well. Flora and Fetchet are invented out of whole cloth, but both their stories are based on research about “plain folk” I read about in books. Fetchet was actually based on a character that was discovered by a PhD student who was doing research on the Dutch anatomy theaters. And Pia, the conservator, was heavily based on the chief conservator at the Mauritshuis, who kindly spent a lot of time with me and let me watch her restore paintings in her studio there.

Q: How does living in modern-day Amsterdam help you conjure 17th-century Dutch life?  

A: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have been about to write this novel without living here. Maybe not as long as I have… which is coming up on eight years now… but at least for a few years. Amsterdam is still very much preserved in its 17th century state in some ways. My first apartment here was built in 1624 and it was on one of the oldest city canals (now in the Red Light District) right around the corner from the Waag, where Tulp’s anatomy took place, and around the corner from the Rembrandt House Museum. A lot of the topography is the same, even if some of the buildings have changed (Rembrandt’s very first house in Amsterdam is no longer there, for example). But many of the buildings are the same. I worked (for Time Out Amsterdam) in a building that used to be the Dutch West India Company storehouse. I walked the same street where my characters walked, It was easy for me to squint my eyes in a certain way and imagine that I was living in the 17th century. And because I was reading all day long about the life of the 17th century, it was easy to enter that dream, to imagine the scenes from the novel taking place all around me. For those first two years I lived here, I would say that I felt, in a certain way, like I was living in the 17th century.


More about the author:
Nina Siegal is a New Yorker based in Amsterdam, who works as an author, editor, and journalist. She graduated with a BA in English Literature from Cornell University and received her MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She has received numerous grants and fellowships for her fiction, including a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing, two MacDowell Colony fellowships, and the post-graduate Jack Leggett Fellowship from Iowa. Her first novel, A LITTLE TROUBLE WITH THE FACTS, a neo-noir comedic murder mystery, was published by HarperCollins (New York) in 2008, and was a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Siegal’s journalistic writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The International Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, W. Magazine, Art in America, 1stDibs, ArtNews, and Bloomberg News. She has been contributing articles to The New York Times since 1997 and currently writes about art frequently for The International New York Times. In 2008, she was the launching editor for Time Out Amsterdam magazine, which she ran as editor-in-chief until 2012, and thereafter she became managing editor of Flow Magazine International, which launched in 2012.


One Comment

  1. Laura weisgerber says:

    I’m trying to find a collector who is interested in buying an original Rembrandt.
    Please respond if you can point me in the right direction.
    Thank you

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