This work was illustrated on the 1938 Hercules Powder Company calendar.
"Early in his career," notes the artist's biographers, "N.C. Wyeth learned that commissions for paintings to be used exclusively for advertising purposes were financially worthwhile. Following his first such assignment, for Cream of Wheat, commercial projects were offered to him in steadily increasing numbers: work for magazine advertisements, calendars, posters. He was highly sought after, and despite the large number of paintings he turned out for magazine and book illustration, his output of commercial artwork was considerable. In style, freshness, and appeal, most of his commercial creations are as alive today as they were some fifty years ago; they are not 'dated,' like the work of so many of the well-known commercial artists of that period." (D. Allen and D. Allen, Jr., N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals, New York, 1972, p. 141)
Created in 1937 for a calendar of the Hercules Powder Company, The Alchemist presents a scene from Medieval times. It takes for its central theme the curiosity and investigations of an alchemist, one of many who practiced a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and who are chiefly remembered today for their quixotic attempts to convert base metals into gold. They also advanced the study of the natural world, however, and provided a basis for more purely scientific investigations in the modern age, among them most obviously chemistry, a central concern of the Hercules Powder Company.
Hercules produced calendars over many decades, and often recruited famous illustrators to produce calendar images. Wyeth produced almost a dozen, and others were painted by such notable artists as Dean Cornwell, Peter Hurd, Ogden Pleissner, and Norman Rockwell. As noted by his biographers, N.C. Wyeth and Hercules Incorporated shared a long and fruitful relationship. "During his last years, N.C. Wyeth accepted numerous calendar assignments. Those done for Hercules Incorporated and for John Morrell and Company were particularly notable. (Allen and Allen, p. 153)
The Alchemist , painted in bold colors and a vivid composition, depicts two men in an alchemist's study. Presumably the more elderly man is the alchemist himself, and next to him stands his well-dressed patron and a castle is dramatically framed in the window. Both men are absorbed in the work at hand. Here N.C. Wyeth creates a figural work of heroic size and imagery characteristic of his best commercial paintings, and one that celebrates curiosity and the spirit of inquiry.
This work is included in the N.C. Wyeth catalogue raisonné database that is being compiled by the Brandywine River Museum and Conservancy, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.