Frans van Mieris I* (1635-1681)

An Old Alchemist and his Assistant in their Workshop

Frans van Mieris I* (1635-1681)
An Old Alchemist and his Assistant in their Workshop
signed 'F.v Mieris'
oil on panel
19 x 14in. (48.8 x 35.5cm.)
Philippe, Duc d'Orlans (le Rgent), and by descent through Louis, Duc d'Orlans, to Philippe (Egalit), Duc d'Orlans, by whom sold with all the Flemish, Dutch and German paintings from the Orlans collection to a syndicate consisting of George, Lord Kinnaird, William Morland and Mr. Hammersley for 350,000 francs, and imported by its agent Thomas Moore Slade 1792; exhibited for sale by private contract at no. 125 Pall Mall, April to mid-June, 1793.
Koucheleff-Besborodko; sale Htel Drouot, Paris, June 5, 1869, lot 20 (11,500 francs).
Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., 1957/8.
with Newhouse Galleries, New York, from whom purchased by the present owner.
J.B. Descamps, La vie des peintres flamands, allemands et hollandais, III, 1760, p. 20.
L.F. Dubois de Saint-Gelais, Description des Tableaux du Palais Royal avec la vie des peintres la tte de leurs ouvrages dedie Monsigneur Le Duc d'Orlans, 1727 and 1737, p. 151.
W. Buchanan, Memoirs of Painting, 1824, I, p. 206.
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonn, etc., I, 1829, no. 49.
C. Stryiensky, La Galerie du Rgent Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, 1913, p. 184.
C. Hofstede de Groot, A Catalogue Raisonn, etc., X, 1928, p. 10, no. 42.
O. Naumann, 'The Lesson (Reattributed)', in the catalogue of the exhibition, The William A. Clark Collection, 1978, p. 71, note 7.
O. Naumann, Frans van Mieris, 1981, II, p. 15, no. 11, pl. 11.
Galerie Orleans, Paris, 1798.
Leipzig, Kunstverein, Alte Meister aus Privatbesitz, 1937, no. 44.
Birmingham, Alabama, The Birmingham Museum of Art, Dutch, Flemish and German Paintings from the Collection of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., 1957-58, p. 24, illustrated.

Lot Essay

The present painting is one of the masterpieces of van Mieris' early career. In this flawlessly polished painting, an elderly alchemist intently observes through his spectacles an experiment performed by his young assistant, who uses a bellows to ignite some element in the boiling crucible, apparently with the purpose of altering its physical properties. Probably painted around 1655, according to Otto Naumann, when the young artist was still much under the influence of Gerard Dou, van Mieris' picture presents its subject with unusual subtlety. In this, the painter's only depiction of the theme, he avoids the overt ridicule with which most seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painters -- notably Steen, Ostade, and Teniers -- portrayed the popular comic character of the alchemist or charlatan. In 1941, when the chemist D.D. Berolzheimer published Guttenberg's engraving of the painting in an article on 'Alchemical and Historical Reproductions' in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry (vol. 33, no. 1, p. 144), the author remarked that this is 'one of the few paintings of this type and age which does not have a salamander or its equivalent suspended from the ceiling to mystify the clients or other visitors and possibly act as a talisman'. In a time when the public had a justifiable skepticism of the scientific professions, a painting with such an apparently matter-of-fact attitude to the subject was remarkable.

Perhaps, as Naumann has suggested, a different sort of moralizing reading was intended. By employing an impressionable boy in wasteful activity, the pseudo-scientist offers a bad example; the painting therefore could be interpreted as emblematizing 'Poor Instruction'. The bellows symbolically 'fans knowledge' or learning, but in this case it is false knowledge that is being encouraged. Being a traditional symbol of stupidity, the bellows underscores the fatuity of alchemy.

Like many of the most beautiful cabinet pieces by the 'Dutch little masters', the present painting was first recorded at the beginning of the eighteenth-century at the Palais Royal, in the celebrated collections of the French Rgent, Philippe, duc d'Orlans.

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