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Augmented Reality takes museum-goers inside Rembrandt painting

One of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings has been brought to virtual life by The Mauritshuis and Nationale-Nederlanden at the historic Waag(Weigh House) in the heart of Amsterdam. The painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp of 1632, one of the museum’s most important works, is a highlight of the national ‘Rembrandt and the Golden Age’ year.

The augmented reality experience, allows the user to experience the anatomical theatre of 1632 digitally, and to observe Dr. Tulp and his fellow physicians, as well as the subject of their examination, the corpse of Aris Kindt. Now, 350 years after the death of the world-famous Dutch master, anyone can look over his shoulder with the Rembrandt Reality app.

Museum uses AR app

Augmented Reality – No Glasses Required

The Rembrandt Reality app uses augmented reality. This technology makes it possible to enrich the world with virtual holographic projections using the camera on an Apple or Android device*. These virtual objects are projected and placed into the physical world, where users can interact with them. A virtual ‘portal’ was designed for Rembrandt Reality. By placing this portal in the physical world, the user can literally step inside with a smartphone. The smartphone’s camera lets the user see a virtual world, in this instance the anatomy lesson. Unlike virtual reality, no special glasses are required.

Making Of

To replicate The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp as realistically as possible, lookalikes of the main figures in the painting dressed up in seventeenth-century outfits and were then scanned with a 3D scanner made up of 600 reflex cameras. The original theatre in the Waag where Dr. Tulp gave his anatomy lesson in 1632 was then captured with the 3D scanner. These scans were then combined, after which 3D modellers gave the figures and the space the correct colours, textures and light. Art historians from the Mauritshuis worked closely with the makers of the app to realise this project, translating their expertise into an app that – just like Rembrandt’s work – is way ahead of its time.

Innovative Surgeons in the Dutch Golden Age

The Anatomy Lesson was one of the young Rembrandt’s first important commissions. The Amsterdam guild of surgeons commissioned him to paint a portrait of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and his fellow guildsmen. Tulp had been the guild’s Praelector Anatomiaesince 1628, and it was in this capacity that he gave anatomy lessons in the Amsterdam Waag. The general public could buy admission tickets to watch a criminal who had been sentenced to death be dissected. Anatomy lessons were particularly popular in an age when there was a renewed interest in the human body, and they lasted for several days. Rembrandt painted his medical gathering in a highly original way, as if we ourselves are present in the anatomical theatre, watching the lesson from closeby.

‘This is a new way of looking at art, which catapults the experience of looking at art into the future’, said Emilie Gordenker, Director of the Mauritshuis. ‘Rembrandt was a pioneering painter. He used new techniques to arrive at a new visual language. 350 year later, he continues to encourage us to innovate. Using augmented reality technology, you can enter the anatomical theatre through a portal, whether you are at home or outside. You become a witness to a seventeenth-century anatomy lesson and look over Rembrandt’s shoulder. A thrilling experience.’ 

Making of an augmented reality museum experience

We are proud to be able to bring one of Rembrandt’s fascinating paintings to a broad and young audience in this innovative way. You literally step into Rembrandt’s painting. We recently extended our partnership with the Mauritshuis for a further three years and this is exactly the kind of contemporary digital concept we would like to pursue. It fits well with our goal of helping to make art and culture accessible to everyone and making a positive contribution to society’, commented Dailah Nihot, member of the NN Group Management Board.

The Rembrandt Reality app is available free of charge from 12 March from the Apple App* and Google Play* stores.
*The app only works on smartphones and devices that are less than two years old. Apple: iPhone SE, 6S and newer models, iPad Pro, iPad 2017 and newer models. Android: Android 7.0 or higher.

About the author – David Enns

David Enns is a freelance journalist working at the junction of technology and art. He has contributed to many of the best known arts publications in the United States and is currently working on his first book which will examine the Art in Virtual Reality.

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