John Collier was a versatile and prolific artist born in London in 1850, the second son of the eminent lawyer and judge, Robert Porrett Collier, later the first Lord Monkswell. Collier was frequently drawn to mythic and literary sources as inspiration for his paintings, particularly those that explored a more seductive and darker side of womanhood than what was traditionally expected of the Victorian wife and mother. These themes are present throughout his oeuvre and he frequently painted dangerous mythic and historical women including Clytemnestra whom he depicted twice, once in 1882 (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and again in 1914 (Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, Worcestershire). In the present work, however, Collier has drawn from a more contemporary source, the 1844 poem by Robert Browning of the same name, The Laboratory, which was first published in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics in 1845.
Browning’s salacious and gleeful poem follows a would-be murderess as she watches an alchemist prepare a poison that will kill her husband’s lover, a tale based loosely upon the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who caused scandal in Paris when she was guillotined in 1676 after having been found to have poisoned her father and two brothers. The poem has parallels to Browning’s more notorious work of 1842, My Last Duchess, where a husband speaks of his last wife whom he had seen fit to remove and possibly kill. Both Browning and Collier’s curiosity towards these subjects are indicative of the endemic Victorian interest in the darkness of the human psyche and a simultaneous repulsion and attraction to the femme fatale archetype. In his poem Browning conveys the giddy exhilaration of the woman as she ecstatically anticipates the death of her husband’s paramour. Here Collier captures the same sense of anticipation, depicting her impatiently reaching out for the vial of poison that will cause such destruction. Browning opens the poem in the eponymous laboratory:
‘Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro’ these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s-smithy—
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?’
Collier portrays this duplicitous ‘devil’s-smithy’ as shrouded in darkness and mystery. The only light source in the painting is emitted from the burning furnace, which is out of the frame to the left. The flames cast an eerie glow on the two subjects’ features, illuminating the alchemist’s sardonic smile and his customer’s beautiful yet resolute features. The smoke which coils around the center of the painting suffuses the picture with a heady atmosphere, thick with psychological tension. While Collier has chosen to render a scene where little physical drama occurs, it is still expertly laced with tension and melodrama.
The woman holds a glass mask in her left hand, which Browning’s protagonist references in the first line of his poem as a protective instrument for her to see within the alchemist’s hazy lair. The scorned woman speaks of her husband’s affair which has made a mockery of her, and she unremorsefully and elatedly delights in the preparation of the poison to give her husband’s lover. The woman is dressed sumptuously in pink and white, the boning on her bodice studded with pearls, and her seductive beauty belies her intent. Her bare white throat is clearly shown by Collier, and we can see that her many jewels are laid out on the stone table, in the grasp of the old alchemist. He has taken his fee but the woman cares nothing for her material loss, her only concern is her consuming desire to destroy those who have deceived her.