Poverty and the Pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone: Representation of Alchemists in Sixteenth-century Netherlandish Art

Keywords: Alchemy, Alchemist, Netherlands, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Poverty

The representation of the alchemist became a particularly popular theme in the art, society, and culture of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It reflected both the height of the practice of alchemy, as well as the artistic culture of Netherlandish art during this period. Alchemy’s popularity is further evidenced by over a hundred alchemical treatises that were published during the seventeenth century, many of which originated in the Netherlands.[i] The earliest representation of an alchemist in Netherlandish art is an engraving dated to the sixteenth century by the Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569).[ii] Bruegel’s representation of an alchemist became popular after the northern Renaissance printmaker Philip Galle made engravings after it.[iii] It was Bruegel’s particular brand of satire and moralistic reading which did the most to influence the increased popularity of the theme in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art.

Philip Galle (After Pieter Bruegel the Elder), The Alchemist, c.1558,
Ink on paper, 32.54 x 44.61cm,
New York, The Met

 In Bruegel’s intricately detailed image, a dilapidated family kitchen doubles as a laboratory. The alchemist sitting at the hearth on the left appears to be placing the family’s last coin in a crucible to be melted in the alchemical process. This point is further underscored by his wife, who is seated in a hunched posture behind him and attempts to empty the contents of an already empty purse. While the alchemist’s shabby torn clothes and spine clearly revealed through his skin signifies their desperate poverty, his thick, wiry hair, also conveys an impression of vagueness and absurdity, not unlike the modern stereotype of the distracted and disheveled mad scientist. Both the scene and figures imply that the alchemist neglects himself as much as his family in the single-minded pursuit of his occupation.

Objects in the print also form the foundation for alchemical iconography in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. Many of the kitchen utensils have been replaced by alchemical equipment like glass flasks with various other cooking and storage vessels also used in the service of alchemy. A large industrial-sized distillation apparatus beside the alchemist signifies that the family’s money has been lost to the pursuit of transmutation. Scantily clad and bare-footed children appear to search for food in a bare larder, with one child wearing an inverted pot on their head which alludes to their unsuccessful pursuit. A piece of paper pinned on the chimney above the alchemist bares the word misero (‘poverty’), which serves to emphasise the intended moral message.[iv]

Crouching in front of the alchemist’s wife, an assistant sporting a hooded fool’s cap with ass ears, symbolising false magistery, is madly using the bellows to fan the flames in a brazier filled with crucibles that have toppled over.[v] The comedy of errors played out by the alchemist, his wife and assistant is witnessed by a scholarly figure on the right of the composition, who wears a long robe and turban, is seated at a lectern and points to the title of an open book, Alghe Mist, which is translated as either ‘all is lost’ or ‘all is crap’ and doubles as a pun on the word alchemist.[vi] With a guiding hand, the scholar further directs the gaze of the viewer to the unfolding moral of the scene. The scholar, via the alchemical texts, appears to be instructing the activities of the alchemist and his assistant.

As if looking through a window to the future, a secondary scene unfolds as the family walks to an almshouse. This implies that they have squandered the last of their money in the hopes of achieving transmutation in the quest for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone. Furthermore, the scholarly figure and the assistant are no longer with the family, which possibly suggests that the scholar is the corrupter of those who are more foolish to work in the laboratory aspects of transmutation. In this regard, Bruegel’s print serves as a dual representation of the alchemist as both a fool and charlatan.

Adriaen van de Venne, Rijcke-armoede (‘Rich Poverty’), 1632,
Oil on panel, 38.1 x 49.5cm, Science History Institute, Philadelphia.

Amidst the prosperity of the Netherlands, satirical images of alchemists accompanied by a neglected wife and children with empty moneybags, as originally represented in the sixteenth-century print after Pieter Bruegel, became a common motif in seventeenth-century Netherlandish genre painting. The implied admonition against poverty and chaos was a common theme in both comical and didactic representations of the alchemist that was unique to this region and period. Adriaen van de Venne’s (1589-1662), monochrome painting Rijcke-armoede (‘Rich Poverty’) closely resembles Bruegel’s print. The decay and disorder of the interior signifies the moral corrosion of the greed and foolishness that led the alchemist to attempt a shortcut to achieve wealth and then fail in his duties as a husband and father.[vii] The wife reveals the family’s last coin in her outstretched hand, with despair on her face. Her child tugs at her dress with one hand and cusps the other in a gesture of need. The alchemist ignores the plight of his family and works at the hearth, placing an unseen object inside the crucible. Once again the alchemist is represented as failing to care for his family.

The enormous distilling apparatus behind the wife is also taken directly from Breugel’s representation. The strong didactic message of poverty is further expressed by the weathered boards on the chimney, tattered clothes of the alchemist and makeshift table made from barrels and a plank of wood. Like Bruegel, paper is pinned to the chimney reading ‘Rijcke-Armoede’. This suggests that money has gone into the enormous wealth of alchemical apparatus and experimentation rather than feeding and clothing the family.[viii] Like Breugel’s image of the alchemist, this representation was unlikely to have been designed to elicit sympathy from its audience as it was the alchemist’s desire for a ‘short-cut’ to wealth that paradoxically led to his family’s precarious predicament. In the words of van de Venne, ‘for folly to be recognized [it needs to be illustrated] in order to shun it in the world’.[ix] This moralising message and emotive imagery would have struck a chord with a Dutch audience as the strength of the nuclear family became central to the identity of the Dutch Republic.[x]

For more on the representation of the alchemist see, The Image and Identity of the Alchemist in Seventeenth-Century Netherlandish Art

[i] Jane R. Corbett, ‘Seeing Things: The Alchemist and Death by Thomas Wyck’ in Volker Manuth and Axel Rüger (eds.) Collected Opinions: Essays on Netherlandish Art in Honour of Alfred Bader, London: Paul Holberton, 2004, p. 164; Jane P. Davidson, David Teniers the Younger, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1979, p. 39.

[ii] Hans Vlieghe, David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690): A Biography, Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011, p. 10; Corbett, 2004, p. 164.

[iii] Lloyd DeWitt and Lawrence M. Principe, ‘Alchemy and its Images in the Eddleman and Fisher Collections at the Chemical Heritage Foundation,’ in Jacob Wamberg (ed.), Art and Alchemy, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006, p. 11. The caption at the bottom of the print was not found on the original image by Bruegel. It reads, ‘The ignorant ought to put up with things and afterwards labor diligently. The juice of the precious stone, common but then rare, is a certain single thing, vials but found everywhere, mingled with the four natures, crammed in a cloud, no mineral thing, and while of the first rank is such that it is found everywhere at hand.’

[iv] John Read, The Alchemist in Life, Literature and Art, London: Thomas Nelson, 1947, p. 63.

[v] Matilde Battistini, Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art, trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Frongia, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007, p. 361; Hélène A. Guerber, The Myths of Greece and Rome, New York: Cosimo, Inc., 2007, p. 57. The ass’s ears allude to the myth of Apollo who made Midas grow the ears of a donkey to tag him for his dishonesty.

[vi] Quentin Buvelot (ed.), Frans van Mieris 1635-1681, The Hague: Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis; Washington: National Gallery of Art; Zwolle: Waanders, 2005, p. 85; Walter S. Gibson, Pieter Bruegel and the Art of Laughter, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006, p. 45; Corbett, 2006, p. 250.

[vii] Principe and DeWitt, 2002, p. 12.

[viii] Ibid, p. 19.

[ix] Adriaen van de Venne cited in Eddy de Jongh, ‘Jan Steen, So Near and Yet So Far’ in Guido M. C. Jansen (ed.), Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, exh. cat., Washington: National Gallery of Art; Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 44.

[x] H. Perry Chapman, ‘Home and the Display of Privacy’ in Mariët Westermann (ed.), Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt, exh. cat., Denver, Colo: Denver Art Museum; Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum; Zwolle, Netherlands: Waanders Publishers, 2001, p. 143.

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