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Alchemical Paintings: A Successful Business

In paintings of alchemists, especially when in their laboratory, we see that some had an apothecary business. Medicines were often made in an alchemical way, that is, there was an underlying philosophical or hermetic basis in their preparation. The material and the spiritual world were not seen as separate but as linked together. Only in recent centuries we see a split between chemistry and spirituality. An apothecary alchemist was an important and respected member of his community. In some of the paintings we see a visiting customer.

Alchemists were also engaged in other practices, experimenting with metals, minerals and all kinds of materials. Some of these alchemists, who had come up with an interesting product, also had a small successful business. It is not always clear from the paintings what they were engaged in.

The sample of paintings shown here testify of the success in their business, as shown by their rich clothing, several assistants, and sometimes a large laboratory.

There are also etchings/engravings that show more accurate representations of alchemical laboratories. These are usually full with an oven and distiller, producing chemicals of various kinds. Originally the chemists in charge also had philosophical or hermetic ideas, but they became more purely chemists when alchemically was being considered as a folly. However, some scientists/chemists during the 19th and 20th century still held to alchemy, and performed alchemical experiments.


A Physician, a Woman Patient and an Alchemist, by Egbert van Heemskerck II (1634/1635–1704)

A Physician, a Woman Patient and an Alchemist, probably by Egbert van Heemskerck II (1634/1635–1704)

This paintings is a little faded and has scratches on it, but it is interesting for what it displays. A physician is bringing his patient to an alchemist, no doubt for obtaining a medicine for the poor woman. This shows that some alchemists were preparing special medicines via their unorthodox methods, and that some physicians took them seriously. The alchemist must have had a good reputation, as he is well-dressed in expensive clothing. His small laboratory has an appropriate distiller. The books on the foreground allude to his knowledge. More books are on the table. He has an assistant in the background.


A Lady Visiting an Alchemist's Laboratory, by Jan Josef Horemans the elder (1682–1752)

A Lady Visiting an Alchemist's Laboratory, by Jan Josef Horemans the elder (1682–1752)

The stuffed fish on the wall points to an apothecary. An alchemist is in his typical posture of using a bellows to fan the fire. He has several assistant around him. The lady is of aristocratic rank, and is probably there to obtain an alchemically prepared medicine.


An Alchemist and His Assistant, by Hendrick Heerschop

An Alchemist and His Assistant, by Hendrick Heerschop, c.1620–c.1672

Science History Institute. Philadelphia

A similar painting as the one before, by Heerschop. This time the alchemist is using a balance, while his assistant is warming up something, having a distillation setup above another stove. It is a very simple setup, but they know what they are doing. He probably has a small but good business.


An Alchemist making Gold, by Hendrik Heerschop (c.1620–c.1672)

An Alchemist making Gold, by Hendrik Heerschop (c.1620–c.1672)

A well-lit room, with a man who is not poor but not rich either. The clothes on the table and in front indicate  a basic wealth. A book on the foreground is an alchemical manuscript to led him to his wealth. He is weighing golden coins with a scale. His boy assistant look happy. The red velvet cloth on top of the book might also allude to the riches contained in it. It is not clear in which practice he is engaged, but it seems to go well.


An Alchemist in his Laboratory, by Balthasar van den Bossche (1681–1715)

An Alchemist in his Laboratory, by Balthasar van den Bossche (1681–1715)

A well-lit laboratory with an oven in the back and an athanor in the front. The old man is a learned man, as he is studying books. The celestial globe reveals his interest in astrology. He is well-clothed and has a rich table cloth, revealing that is moderately wealthy. He has several assistants, making preparations. The laboratory is most likely an apothecary, as it was the custom to hang a stuffed crocodile, or other animal, on the ceiling.


An Alchemist in His Laboratory, by a follower of David Teniers II (1610–1690)

An Alchemist in His Laboratory, by a follower of David Teniers II (1610–1690)

The stuffed fish (sometimes it was a crocodile) is a sign that this is an apothecary, although it is an alchemist making the preparations. He is obvious successful and wealthy. He wears rich clothing, and has several assistants. There are many vials, pots and preparations around the lab. The usual books are on the foreground. Although this is a workplace, the entire scene is orderly and everyone is calm, and knows what he is a doing.


Unknown painter

Unknown painter

This is a very nice painting of an alchemist's laboratory, that most likely is a small business selling medicines prepared with alchemical processes. 

We see a large clear, spacious room. The alchemist is well-clothed, and wealthy enough to afford this room, the alchemical equipment, although it is not elaborate. There are several ovens. Behind him he is preparing warming and distilling on two places. To the right an assistant is bellowing a fire, while in the foreground there is an athanor. So he is quite busy, and serious. He studies books, but is also checking his laboratory work (the glass vessel he is holding). Throughout the room are various containers with his preparations. In the back is probably his wife, also at an oven, but maybe she is preparing food, as the man who is entering is bringing a rabbit.


De re metallica

From the book De re metallica, by Georg Bauer (Georgius Agricola), 1556

De Re metallica, or On the Nature of Metals is a book in Latin cataloguing the state of the art of mining, refining, and smelting metals. It was also an important chemistry text for the period. Agricola did not reject the idea of alchemy, but noted that alchemical writings were obscure and that not any of the masters became rich.


Jan van der Straet

Distillation, engraving from around 1600

This is a plate from a series of twenty prints illustrating new inventions and discoveries after Jan van der Straet, published in Antwerp, Belgium.

We see various chemists and assistants distilling in a laboratory. To left is a scholar with glasses seated on a chair reading a thick manual, with another man standing by his side. At the center is a large stove heated by a flame and connected to flasks.


Michael Kussel

Alchemical or chemical laboratory of Michael Küssel, Holy-Epistolic report by Johann Michael Dilherr, 1663


Johann Glauber

engraved frontispiece of The works of the highly experienced and famous chymist, John Rudolph Glauber, by John Rudolph Glauber, 1689

Johann Rudolf Glauber (1604–1670) was a German-Dutch alchemist, apothecary and chemist. His discovery of sodium sulfate in 1625 led to the compound being named after him: "Glauber's salt". He earned his living by selling chemical preparations. The laboratories in his house in Amsterdam were so elaborate and well-equipped that his home was often visited by dignitaries.