This painting is one of the finest examples of approximately a dozen known depictions of this subject by Teniers and is of comparable quality to The Alchemist of 1649 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist probably first treated the subject in the late 1640s, when it gained great popularity with Dutch and Flemish painters. On account of the lighter palette with more complex and subtle tonal harmonies, the present picture likely dates to the early 1650s, making it one of his earliest treatments of the subject.
Stemming from 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’. Showing tendencies towards witchcraft and charlatanry, it quickly came to symbolize the vain pursuit of profit and the alchemists’ squandering of time and money, with artists 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 through much of 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.
An important source of inspiration for Teniers and his colleagues was a drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of an alchemist’s workshop of circa 1558 (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), which was widely disseminated shortly thereafter through a print made by Philips Galle (fig. 1). While Teniers would have most likely been well acquainted with Bruegel’s design, having married his granddaughter, Anna, in 1637, only a few of his alchemists are as satirized and mocked as in Bruegel’s drawing, instead mostly appearing as serious scholars rather than fools. Teniers further looked to the low-life genre pictures of Adriaen Brouwer, and, while no alchemist scenes survive by the artist, Teniers can be seen borrowing whole figures and motifs from his known works, including the man peering through the overhead window in the present picture, which became one of Teniers’ trademarks. In this work, the painter also likely derived the pose of the protagonist in the lower left from Florentius Schoonhovius’ Emblemata (Gouda, 1618; fig. 2), in which an alchemist similarly stokes a fire with bellows. The Latin verses appended to the emblem stress the futile endeavors of the alchemist: ‘While I pursue uncertainly with certain means, I convert everything into smoke and worthless ash’.
Composed with a series of interlocking low diagonals and triangles, this scene is set in a spacious workshop strewn with books, glassware, ceramic pots, vials, an animal skull, a brazier and a stuffed alligator hung from the ceiling, giving the artist ample opportunity to demonstrate his skills in still life painting. The viewer’s eye is led from the seated young man in the foreground, pumping bellows at the coals at an arrow-like angle, to the youth behind him, and onto the group seated at the back of the workshop, with an assistant busily working at a furnace. The alchemist is seated at the table with two figures seemingly in theoretical discussion, and, as in almost all of Teniers’ depictions, is seen as an older bearded man in exotic clothing. Yet, unlike the artist’s other treatments of the subject, the alchemist is here displaced by the young man looking out at the viewer as the central figure in the composition, suggesting that the latter’s prominence may have signified his importance in relation to the commission, perhaps either as the patron or even the artist himself. Indeed, as many artists’ pigments and glazes used in the seventeenth century were prepared by alchemical methods, Teniers would have likely visited laboratories to acquire pigments and so may have felt a special affinity with the practice. This may well be attested to by a picture entitled The young Teniers in his studio, offered Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 9 June 1909, which shows a similar young man, possibly Teniers, seated in the same pose preparing his pigments in a bowl at a window.
We are grateful to Dr. Margret Klinge for endorsing the attribution of this painting.