Alchemy has always been a mixture of art, science, and wishful thinking. This type of craft focuses on the techniques and processes necessary to change base materials into noble ones. Earlier theories focused on transmutation of copper and iron into gold and silver. What now seems like wishful, if not magical thinking, in fact, was a searching process that laid some of the foundations for what we now consider scientific research. Indeed, the nature of contemporary scientific inquiry, the foundation of evidence-based medical practice, can be clearly identified in the history of alchemy and demonstrated in the visual arts captivated by this often-secretive craft.
Alchemy emerged from fundamental concepts of chemistry and metallurgy recorded in the libraries of Alexandria, Egypt as early as the 1st century BCE. Greek domination during the ensuing 300 to 400 years only expanded its value. But the discipline of transformation through alchemy, one element changing into another, was largely practiced in secrecy for centuries . Prelates, monarchs, and even Popes (like John XXII in 1317) of the Middle Ages often disapproved of alchemy for intellectual, spiritual, and financial reasons. While some of this disapprobation arose from concerns about fraud, central powers whose currencies depended on precious metals also feared glutting the market with man-made gold. But the allure of profitability generally won the day, and fueled both an often-clandestine alchemy industry as well as some skeptical monarchs who sought to hedge their bets with a controlled flow of the products of chrysopoeia, the process of making gold, into their treasuries. Even monks, otherwise sworn to lives of poverty, perceived potential value in generating a supply of precious metals and gems to fund their proselytizing missions, exemplified by the Crusades and combat against the Antichrists .
By the beginning of the 16th century, alchemy experiments birthed a number of important, profitable industries, including metal alloys, fabric dyes, medications and potions, and alcohol or “fire water.” Alchemy anticipated the Age of Enlightenment, and was a forerunner of experimental science. Emerging from secrecy, it was very much in the public eye, and, so, a prime subject for painters during the 17th century.
Art in the Dutch Republic turned to a new genre, depicting secular subjects involved in everyday life. It was at this juncture that David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) recorded the nature of alchemy in his artwork . While hardly alone in this endeavor, Teniers was particularly prolific in his representations of the alchemist. He was a skilled observer, talented painter, and an outstanding representative of his peer artists [2, 4].
Born in Antwerp, one of six children, David Teniers the Younger learned to paint depictions of scenes from the Old and New Testaments and mythology. But he soon eclipsed the talent of his impoverished mentor and father (David Teniers the Elder). Completed around 1650, The Alchemist (Fig. 1) demonstrates a dense collection of objects and imagery typically associated with the craft, and is representative of the Dutch genre Teniers adopted for most of his active career.
The central figure in this oil painting—the alchemist of the work’s title—appears at the right margin, dressed in peasant garb, disheveled and tattered, as is much of the room around him. He displays a quizzical expression and wears a long white beard. He appears tired, having worked long hours, and while frustrated he persists in his quest. He is vigilant in carefully observing the world around him (his small laboratory), looking for new insights that will transform his dream into reality. He holds a book in his left hand and stirs something in a crucible with his right, suggesting serious experimentation. His importance to the scene is further emphasized by the diagonal of light traversing from the upper left corner of the painting to highlight the alchemist’s face, deep in thought, and the pages of texts around him. These large, open books in the lower right lean against one another, and suggest a craft with long history and serious intent. He looks over his right shoulder at an apparatus just off-center, which drips liquid into a small pot on the floor. Also on the table is a small grouping of objects that includes an hourglass, which creates one of several distinct still lifes, a popular artistic technique of the times. A group of furnaces, including one attended by an apprentice, fills out the rear of the room. Flasks, pots, bowls, and rags are scattered about in what obviously is an established, working laboratory. The painter placed the objects deliberately at different heights and in different positions to draw our eye across the entire work place.
The color scheme is a harmony of grays, blues, and browns, giving the scene a muted if not somber tone. Many artists’ pigments used in the 17th century, including Teniers’, were produced by alchemists. For example, lutum sapientiaes, a typical concoction, was made of clay, horse dung, straw, chalk, brick dust, lead white, and egg white . It is possible that Teniers, himself, was a practitioner of alchemy for this specific purpose.
This is a classic Teniers painting of an alchemist at work—a middle-aged man amidst a plethora of laboratory apparatuses and reference tomes, deep in thought about this speculative science, and frustrated apparently with no tangible product to show for his efforts. Part of Teniers message is that alchemy is all process and, in this case, short on product … especially gold.
Alchemy today is often considered a pseudoscience, with no practical basis, plied by individuals blinded by greed, if not corruption, in search of a dream never to be realized. But this is an incomplete assessment. Alchemy was the forerunner of contemporary scientific inquiry, which in turn is the cornerstone of evidence-based medicine. As Teniers depicted, the craft of alchemy had a voluminous literature and was steeped in methodology, although limited to trial-and-error by default. While the hope of producing gold from base metals was never realized, many commercially useful products were discovered. There is a certain analogous relationship between alchemy of the past and today’s modern science. Alchemy produced potions; modern science produces medicines with the obligation to provide proof of safety and efficacy. Alchemy provoked thoughts on the nature of matter. Today, through careful observation and experimentation, we understand much about how we and our environment are structured at a molecular level.
There is also another side to alchemy today that suggests we engage in a purposeful transmutation of a spiritual nature, as expressed by Paulo Coelho in his inspiring 1988 best-selling novel The Alchemist . Perhaps we could all benefit from a little alchemy.
1. Coelho P. The Alchemist. HarperCollins Publishers; 1993.
2. Davidson JP. David Teniers the Younger. Routledge; 2018.
3. Principe LM. The Secrets of Alchemy. The University of Chicago Press; 2013.
4. Vlieghe H. David Teniers the Younge (1610-1690): A Biography. Brepols Publishers; 2011.