Published by Nan A. Talese
Publication date: March 11, 2014
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Historical
Aris Kindt was not necessarily a bad man but he was a thief. For every town where he was caught he was whipped and branded so his torso and neck told the painful history of his life. It isn’t until he returns to Amsterdam and is caught stealing a burgher’s fine coat that he is not only whipped but then has his hand amputated. Shortly after this, he is condemned to hang—an unusually harsh punishment for non-capital cases. Why does the life of a petty thief in 1600s Holland matter? Because he is the inspiration for Nina Siegal’s debut novel, The Anatomy Lesson, based on Rembrandt’s famous painting. After viewing a print of the painting in her father’s study for many years, Siegal got an MFA and headed to Amsterdam to research the man behind the body in the famous painting.
The Anatomy Lesson is broken down into the segments of the human body with the major parts used to define the perspective of the character for whom that part is most manifest. A young pregnant woman named Flora is the Heart for she was Aris’s girlfriend when they were young. Her reminiscences are not blinded by love but instead see the man in full
He said he were always kind to men even when he were thieving from them. And if he were caught, he said he always showed respect to his jailors. He didn’t mind what they did to him, no matter how much they did to him, he seemed to think it were coming to him.
Once she learns of his imminent death she travels from their small town in the hopes of finding mercy for him. When that hope is gone she wants only to give his body a proper Christian burial.
Rembrandt’s painting is called The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and both of these men are well represented in the narrative, Tulp being the Hands, as the man who conducts the autopsy while Rembrandt is the Eyes for his ability to see beyond the surface of what is in front of him and to the depth which he was then able to impart to his paintings. Like many painters of his time, the study of human anatomy was critical to his work but difficult to come by, when the Church so strongly espoused the body after death as sacrosanct, meaning it could not be touched for either scientific or artistic purposes. Criminals were not afforded the same religious treatment and because of this Rembrandt is able to buy his way into seeing Aris’s body before it is cut up. It is with sadness that he recognizes the dead man from their youth.
Standing in that clearing in the snow, I imagined Adriaen’s youthful face—the one I’d met years earlier—transposed upon that older, tired face of the thief in winter, and now on the cold, bluish-gray face of the dead man in the Waag. What a strange thing to have known a man in these three ways.
For Tulp, there is no such emotion. Aris is merely a collection of parts and one which may make his fame amongst his peers when he convinces Rembrandt to paint him in action. It is also his goal to determine where evil comes from within the human.
Where will we discover the soul of this criminal? And where will we discover his soul’s corruption? We must search the body with great acuity.
And so, the simple Aris, who was much ignored in life, becomes the focus of both great crowds—at his hanging when the pregnant Flora arrives to beg for his life—and many individuals. Each has their own reason for being a part of his death and with a deft hand Siegal creates a portrait of one of the most well-known paintings of its time but also of all the small humanness that lay beneath the paint and beyond the canvas. Through her ingenious mind everyone, even the corpse, comes to life.