“Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life” (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola). However, before alchemy became the modern practice of “consciousness” transmutation, it was an occult art through which people tried to know the secrets of nature and, in the process, discover the “philosopher’s stone” that would grant them immortality or turn ordinary metals into gold. It was a very complicated and obscure process that involved many uneasy steps and sometimes years of work. The six paintings below completed by six different artists can be divided into two camps – (i) those that portray alchemy as a practice of charlatans or the ignorant that leads to poverty, and (ii) those that portray alchemy as a serious and noble intellectual pursuit that laid the foundations of modern chemistry.
I. Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist by David Teniers the Younger
This painting is by the Flemish artist David Teniers The Younger (1610 – 1690). In it, there is an alchemist in his laboratory with assistants in the background. He holds in his hands a pair of bellows to blow the flames. Books with secret formulas on how to transform base metals into noble elements are there near the cupellation furnace, as well as glass bottles, vials, bowls of various sizes and an hourglass, which is a symbol of time and death (mortality). There are also various kinds of aludels (subliming pots) and an alembic (an alchemical still consisting of two vessels connected by a tube) found in the room. A stuffed creature is hanging from the ceiling, being a showpiece that emphasises the worldliness and wealth of the alchemist (in the past, crocodiles were often hanged in apothecaries and that might have signalled to customers that products on display are truly hailed from exotic places and are not domestic fabrications).
II. The Alchemist and His Crying Wife by Jan Steen
Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) was a Dutch artist specialising in painting scenes from people’s everyday life. The Alchemist and His Crying Wife depicts the possible consequences of a blind obsession and folly of alchemy – the morale here is that the secret practice may lead to destitution and the break-up of a family. In this painting, a crying wife with a hungry child beside her comes to her husband-alchemist who lives in poverty and who is already deep in debt (as seen from the notice plastered above and the debt collectors/accountants surrounding him). From the painting it seems like the husband tried to “transmute” the last precious possessions of his family.
III. The Alchemist by Thomas Wijck
Thomas Wijck (1616 – 1657) was another Dutch painter who depicted alchemy as a noble and worthwhile pursuit. Wijck’s painting depicts a disorderly room of an alchemist, emphasising further the alchemy’s goal of making order from chaos. The alchemist alone knows that his unorthodox and misunderstood means are ultimately justified by the goal. Unlike some other painters of this period, Wijck wanted to present alchemists as respectable individuals who are close to artisans, and, therefore, the room depicted resembles a painter’s studio. The alchemist in this painting holds a big book and this, together with the red coat on his shoulders, further signals that he is a man in pursuit of a higher truth. The colour of the coat – red – may not be accidental, since rubedo or “redness” is defined by alchemists as “the final major stage of their “great work” or the achievement of gold/philosopher’s stone”. Even though there are obvious alchemical objects in the room, such as half-filled vessels and a preserved-through-taxidermy creature, the amount of paper and books scattered gives an impression that the studio could have been a writer’s room, which elevates the status of the alchemist as a pursuer of intellectual (and not merely empirical) work.
IV. The Alchemist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, rendered in colour by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Like Jan Steen’s painting above, this rendering in colour of an older work by Pieter Bruegel attempts to showcase the folly of alchemists’ quest to seek gold. In this painting, the adults of one household are blindly immersed in the work of completing “the great work” – to have gold from basic metals, while the children of the household are left unattended by them, ultimately having other people in the background to take care of some of them. One person in this painting is seated with the book, reading directions from it and instructing others what to do in the distillation process, while others work with bellows to get furnaces working and mix powders to make compounds. The painting intentionally presents the people working as near-mad with clownish patched clothes, emphasising their poverty and irrationality, all the consequence of believing in alchemical goals and texts.
V. The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus by Joseph Wright
Joseph Wright (1734 – 1797), an English painter, created this painting in 1771. In it, one alchemist, probably Hennig Brand, is seeking to produce the philosopher’s stone, which is capable of turning ordinary elements to pure gold. However, instead of the stone, the alchemist is amazed in this painting that he has discovered phosphorus. The usual alchemical utensils are present in the room and there are two assistants in the background. What gives this painting a different feel from others is the clever use of the light, as well as the fact that the procedure takes place in such a grand room, rather than in obscurity and poverty that distinguish other paintings.
VI. The Alchemist by David Rijckaert
Like David Teniers or Thomas Wijck’s works above, this painting by another Flemish artist shows the alchemist as a studious individual carefully looking at old texts in his book before proceeding with his action of pouring something from the vial he holds in his hand. His assistant is on his knees near the furnace, tending to the fire. In this room, there are plenty of books, but also various kinds of retorts or devices with long, downward-pointing necks used for the distillation of substances. Interestingly also, this painting shows the operation of an alchemical still, an apparatus used for transmutation – the barrel-type vessel in the middle of the picture is the cooling medium; the smaller vessel to the right of it is the final receiver; and the connections between the furnace retort, and the medium and the final receiver are made through the condensing tubes.