Chemical Heritage Foundation maintains a wonderful Flickr page of images relating to the history of chemistry, pharmacy and alchemy. While perusing their image banks, I came across this collection of 17th and 18th-century paintings of alchemists practicing their occult art -- paintings which include some revealing glimpses into the private life of those who searched for the fabled lapis philosophorum. Credit for the images and quoted text below goes to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, "a non-profit library, museum, and center for scholars that's dedicated to the history of chemistry." Some of these images are very large - I highly encourage readers to click to see the fabulous details (I've picked out a few below).Tweet
And my favorite of all, a painting which has been wrongly attributed as a depiction of an alchemist, but which actually depicts an unlucky physician:
Those interested in alchemy and the occult might want to start with the works of Frances Yates, the doyenne of early modern magic and alchemical studies, and go from there. Personally, though, I've always found Yates to be a bit too speculative. A personal favorite work on alchemy and the occult in the early modern era is Deborah Harkness' masterful John Dee's Conversations with Angels, which contains some great details about Dee's home life and his relationship with his wife. For readers with JSTOR access, Harkness' journal article "Managing an Experimental Household: the Dees of Mortlake and the Practice of Natural Philosophy" contains further insights. Finally, The Alchemy Website has been an internet mainstay for primary source texts and images relating to alchemy for many years.
|The Alchemist. Francois-Marius Granet. Oil on canvas, 18th century. A bit more spare on detail, but this painting captures the moody contemplation of early modern occultists very well, I think. Also a great use of shadow.|
|An Alchemist in His Study. Egbert van Heemskerk I. Oil on canvas, 17th century. Fisher Collection, CHF Collections. Photo by Will Brown. |
Note the birdcages in both this painting and the Thomas Wijck.
|Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. David Teniers II. Oil on canvas, 17th Century Eddleman Collection, CHF.|
|A pipe and birdcage, apparent mainstays of the alchemist's quarters. This is a painting of the Dutch Golden Age, so that blurry image in the background could potentially be a woodblock print from China or Japan.|
|The detritus of a scholarly life.|
|A surreal flourish in the Tenier painting: crocodilians were commonly hung in the shops of apothecaries and other early modern drug-makers. They represented the natural wonders of the tropics, or 'Indies,' from which many such drugs hailed.|
|A sleeping dog, blissfully unaware of the pot of urine being poured on his master's head.|