A Painting of the Alchemist
The legacy of Teniers’ historic art
Popular throughout Europe, the practice of alchemy and medicine were regarded by seventeenth-century lay folk in a way which was by no means straightforward. Many regarded both endeavours (between which there was exeptionally little distinction) as fruitless, fraudulent and sinful while others viewed them as diligent and noble attempts to gain knowledge and improve the lot of mankind. This heterogeneity of opinion is well-reflected rise in the popular theme of alchemy and medicine in seventeenth-century art where portrayals of both doctors and alchemists vary from vilification to affectionate praise.
The painting depicted above falls into the latter category, the alchemist (right) is depicted as an earnest and humble old man. Absorbed in his work, he is surrounded by open books and is in the process of stirring some form of mixture with his right hand, both serving as indications of his diligence. His colourful, but plain clothing is an indication of his humble lifestyle. The workplace itself, a fascinating precursor to the modern laboratory, is filled with a varied assortment of apparatus involving the application of heat to different compounds. Above the various furnaces, we can see an assortment of glass flasks and strangely shaped kettles, some of which appear to have been arranged to carry out distillation. Although flattering, the painting seems very in keeping with many of Teniers’ other works which faithfully portray their respective subjects with realism, as was the baroque tradition.
There are also notable absences from this painting. Although alchemists were often depicted negatively during this period, none of the usual motifs of weeping family or empty money bags are present in this piece. It is a testament to how popular the negative depiction was, however, that despite the positive imagery in this painting, its online description at Mauritshuis disappointingly reads “He [the alchemist] symbolises the man who squanders his money on futile, trivial matters and is therefore reduced to beggary.” The seventeenth-century stereotype was so pervasive, it seems, that it has carried on to the present day. This is a particular shame given that it was Teniers the Younger who first pioneered the more flattering depiction demonstrated in this piece.
There are also more subtly interesting features within the piece. In the background, we see the alchemist’s assistant busying himself with one of the furnaces as he kneels down with his back to the observer. Given that the alchemist’s laboratory may largely be regarded as the precursor to the modern laboratory it seems intriguing that we should be presented with the largely unseen and underappreciated presence of a pseudo “lab assistant”. This is an interesting choice by the painter given that at the time, and indeed to this very day, such figures drew very little attention. Given that the piece is entitled “the alchemist” it may seem that Teniers intends to present the importance of the alchemist’s assistant who, although not important enough to show his face, still represents a significant feature of the workshop. Alternately we may regard the presence of the assistant as demeaning due to his crouching stance, limited colour pallet and lack of a face. Regardless of which meaning Teniers intended, if indeed he had either one in mind, this piece is primarily useful as a source of insight into the physical structure and visual essence of the alchemist’s workshop.
Further to this, there is another interesting feature in the piece: space. This feature is most succinctly presented by the historian J. Reed who writes that “The laboratory is neither a blacksmith’s forge nor a converted kitchen … it is a room designed and equipped expressly for the prosecution of alchemy”. In this way, Teniers does a very good job of presenting a unique image of alchemy as very distinct from other, perhaps similar, activities such as smithing or even medicine. It is a sign of great significance that any activity be given its own room and apparatus and this comes across strikingly well in the unique layout of Teniers’ The Alchemist in which books are read and kept, along with equipment, on the floor and strange symbols and objects, such as lizards (not found in the alchemist) and horse skulls and hourglasses. All of these mark out the Alchemist’s workshop as a distinct location.
The piece has an extensive history. After its creation by the Flemish painter David Teniers the Younger, roughly sometime between 1640 and 1650, this painting somehow found its way to the estate of Prince William IV in 1754 and was displayed at Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn where it remained under the ownership of William V. The painting was then confiscated in 1795 by the French following his exile to London and was taken to the Muséum Central des Arts in Paris. In 1815, it was then returned to Holland at the Royal Picture Gallery, housed in the Prince William V Gallery, The Hague, 1816 before finally being transferred to the Mauritshuis in 1822 where it remains today.
The artist himself was no meagre amateur, David Teniers the Younger was the court painter and curator to Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, a patron of the arts and lover of fine paintings. It is no surprise that he was promoted to such a role as Teniers was undoubtedly an artistic giant of his time who dexterously switched between various genres such as history painting, landscape, genre, portrait and still life while, additionally, being a skilled draughtsman, copyist, printmaker and curator. In addition to helping to pioneer the theme of alchemists, Teniers was also a successful pioneer of the peasant genre and of the history genre for which, during his time, he was very well known.
Given its highly distinguished past and current ownership, we may confidently infer that The Alchemist has been witnessed by a very large and esteemed audience including noblemen, dignitaries, and art critics along with many members of the general public. On top of this, Teniers’ paintings of alchemy encouraged a depiction of alchemy which would have disseminated amongst his peers and into the European mindset at large. This happened not only through the distribution of his own paintings like The Alchemist, but through the similar paintings they inspired in his students as well, such as Thomas van Apshoven and Matthieu van Helmont. This may lead us to wonder about Teniers’ motivations behind this piece. Teniers created a wide assortment of different paintings featuring alchemists and doctors indicating that it was, for a time at least, one of his preferred themes. Working backwards from its effects on the alchemist’s “image”, we may infer that Teniers’ goal was to create a more faithful depiction of alchemy given that before his work many contemporary depictions of alchemy had a strongly negative bias. Furthermore, Teniers demonstrates in many of his other paintings a distinctive realism, especially in the peasant genre in which he painted very normal everyday scenes without noticeable embellishment (see Smokers in an Interior or Card Players as examples). Although it seems the case that Teniers had a desire to create more faithful images of alchemy, it is not immediately clear why exactly he sought to do this. There are a few possible answers we may speculate upon. Firstly there is the theory that Teniers may, himself, have practised alchemy which would explain why he made a self-portrait of himself as an alchemist.
This would give us a clear motive: Teniers wanted to improve the image of his own craft. Another possible answer is that Teniers, as a baroque artist, was artistically interested in accuracy and realism more than he was interested in reinforcing contemporary themes of the failure and folly of alchemy and therefore tried to introduce a more accurate depiction.
It is also worthy of note that Teniers, in addition to being a pioneer on many other frontiers of art, was also the first to produce these more positive depictions of alchemists. Even in the times before Teniers when alchemists were depicted negatively the fact that they were deemed culturally significant enough to portray them at all was an indication of their prevalence and cultural presence. On many other occasions Teniers used his canvas as a window into the lives of peasants and common folk, in this respect it may not be surprising that Teniers became attracted to the culturally significant but misrepresented practice of alchemy, given his penchant for realistic portrayal and his interest in the common and the everyday. Artistic depictions of alchemy do, of course, predate Teniers by a rather long time.
As mentioned before, Teniers’ picture has been of use to historians of science as it provides us with a clear and detailed image of the fascinating precursor to the modern laboratory, but it is important to put Teniers’ work in its historical context. The historian J. Reed points out that “In the earlier laboratories, the apparatus was very simple in design, consisting of fireclay crucibles, metal mortars … [while] in the later laboratories distilling apparatus of increasingly efficient design became evident as may be seen from the paintings of Teniers and other artists of the seventeenth century.” Reed is not clear on what visual source he is referring too for these “earlier laboratories” but it is likely he is referring to woodcuts from the 1500s depicting much larger and less sophisticated apparatus (see image above). This gives historians a very clear indication of the progress of material culture in the alchemist’s laboratory across the centuries and, by extension, is a fascinating visualisation of the progression of scientific practice itself. We can, for instance, contrast the size of the distillation flask and furnace in the woodcut above with the much smaller glass flasks and furnaces depicted in “The Alchemist”. This provides us with evidence that the trend towards smaller and more efficient apparatus has existed in science all the way back to its alchemical roots.
Needless to say, such pictures can provide us with valuable primary evidence; that is, if we decide to trust them. Painting and picture-making, in general, are very distinct from photography in that the creator has much more control over what is shown and what isn’t and also the way in which people and objects are presented. It was often the case, for example, that portrait artists were commissioned either by the same person they were going to paint or by people with other vested interests in having the subject presented flatteringly, often at the expense of accuracy. As a result, a great deal of famous pictures of monarchs and nobles are treated by historians with a great deal of suspicion, there is no such thing as art without bias. With this in mind, it is important to critically asses the motivations behind the production of a painting in order to establish the extent to which we can trust it as a historical source.
As previously discussed, Teniers style seems particularly interested in the faithful reproduction of scenes, but this doesn’t mean that his work is totally free from embellishment. For example, many of Teniers’ paintings of alchemists have common motifs such as the hourglass or the horse’s skull which may be an artistic addition which may not have been commonly found in alchemist workshops at all. In addition to this, Teniers’ early career involved the production of mythical scenes and, later, official paintings as the court painter of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. Despite the apparent accuracy of his pieces, however, the historian C.R. Hill argues that the theme of alchemy “was never more than a formula for the production of pictures crammed with entertaining detail” meaning much of Teniers paintings followed a pre-laid formula which did not necessarily lead to high levels of accuracy. Based on his other works, however, it does not seem that Teniers was hugely preoccupied with significantly editing or embellishing the everyday scenes he painted (at least not to such an extent that they are rendered historically useless) and in any case, some of the components of the workshop which are of most interest to historians are the apparatus and surrounding equipment along with the processes occurring, all things which are part of the scene itself and which are not heavily contingent on the amount of embellishment present in the piece.
It was the craft of baroque artists to be accurate, but to make up for their perhaps dull realism by choosing strange and interesting subjects. As a result, we may argue that Teniers’ subject, the alchemist, was interesting enough that they did not necessarily warrant a great deal of embellishment and, on the whole, can be treated as fairly accurate and certainly useful. This is well demonstrated by their use in papers from numerous academics such as Reed (mentioned earlier) and Davidson, the latter of whom described Teniers’ works on alchemy as “extremely accurate paintings” and further praised his accurate depictions of various iguanas.
In summary, Teniers’ The Alchemist is a rich and revealing visual resource for historians of science which provides us with an intriguing glance into the world of alchemy. Like many of Teniers’ other endeavours, his paintings of alchemists marked a changing point in the way his contemporaries went about doing art, encouraging them to portray alchemists less damningly. It’s long history, moving from Holland to France and back again, has given it a wide viewership and has helped to shape people’s perception of alchemy for hundreds of years. Above all, The Alchemist provides us to this very day with an important memento of a past time where magic and science frequently blended and intermingled.