Growing out of ancient philosophy, alchemy in early modern Europe referred to the pseudo-science of transmutation, where base metals were transformed into gold and silver using the elusive ‘philosopher’s stone’. Tending toward witchcraft and charlatanry, it quickly came to symbolize the vain pursuit of profit and the alchemists’ squandering of time and money, with artists often depicting the figure in the guise of a scholar, philosopher or priest delving into the world’s secrets, or as a fool, magician or sorcerer in league with the devil. Judging from the number of alchemical treatises published throughout Europe in the seventeenth century, interest in the subject was at an all-time high; however, it was only in the Netherlands that the idea of the alchemist in his laboratory became a popular subject for artists. The strong graphic tradition depicting the theme contributed to this fact, along with the development of genre subjects in the Low Countries.
This image of an alchemist strikingly lit by a light source just beyond the left edge of the composition approaches the work of a number of painters in Utrecht in the 1620s. The elegant undulation of the alchemist’s form combined with the spotlit candlelight effect finds close parallels with contemporary paintings by Abraham Bloemaert, including his large Lot and His Daughters of 1624 (The Leiden Collection, New York). Though close to Bloemaert’s approach, the extensive use of still life elements, including the recipe book and equipment – an hour glass, jars and flasks – arranged across the table and shelf along the back wall, are foreign to Bloemaert’s paintings. Several scholars, including both Albert Blankert and Wayne Franits, have suggested the present painting is the work of Johannes Moreelse, who must have been intimately familiar with Bloemaert’s style of the 1620s. In 1627, Moreelse is documented in Rome in the company of Bloemaert’s eldest son, Hendrick. Indeed, the present painting compares favorably with Moreelse’s rare signed paintings, including the pendant pair depicting Democritus and Heraclitus (figs. 1 and 2; both Centraal Museum, Utrecht), the first of which incorporates a similar use of still life elements to those seen in the present painting, and his Penitent Mary Magdalene (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen).
We are grateful to Professor Wayne Franits for endorsing the attribution on the basis of photographs and for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.