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Alchemical Paintings: The Alchemist as a Learned Man 

In the 17th and 18th century, alchemy was blooming. We see that reflected in the painting of that time. The alchemist is taking it seriously. He is both a learned man and has a business.

One needs to pay attention to both the overall impression and the details. The alchemist is often a prosperous man. His office is filled with the tools of his trade. His room shows signs of wealth. He own many books, showing that he has studied and learned a lot, and he often has a wide range of knowledge. On the practical side such knowledge can extent to anatomy, medicines, metallurgy, chemistry, astrology etc. But he also a profound knowledge of spiritual matters, religion, the ancient Greek and Arab philosophies, and hermetic writings. He considered the spiritual and the material as interdependent. In society such an alchemist was considered a learned man and is highly respected.

Hendrick Heerschop

An Alchemist and His Assistant, by Hendrick Heerschop, 1600s

Although the alchemist is sitting in a small room, he is studying and writing. There are a few books and papers around. The open book reveals his interests: one page has an illustration of a plant, the other of a human body, showing his botanical and anatomical interest. The red velvet cloth shows a certain luxury. The globe doesn't show any features, but it most likely an astronomical globe, as this often appears in paintings of alchemists' rooms. Astrology is a common interest among alchemists.


The Alchemist Mattheus van Helmont

The Alchemist, by Mattheus van Helmont (1623-1679 )

An old man, who has studied a lot. Aside from the typical world globe, the table contains many books. On the table we also see an écorché (literally, "flayed") figure, a type of plaster sculpture often used by artists to learn the placement of muscle groups hidden beneath the skin. There is a skull and glass and ceramic vessels and apparatus. The man is clearly a knowledgeable scholar interested in making medicines the alchemical way. The flask he is holding might contain urine that he is analyzing, to diagnose an illness that could be treated with chemical remedies. He has several assistants at work.  


Matthieu van Helmont

The Alchemist, by a follower of Matthieu van Helmont (1623–1679)

Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove

His left hand on a book, his right hand writing, shows he is a learned man. His clothing reveals that he is also a respectable man of good standing. The skull on the table is often shown in alchemical paintings. It is symbolic of the mortality of man, but also of the first stage of alchemy: Nigredo, or Blackness, or Putrefaction. Notice the bookshelf behind him.


David Teniers II (1610–1690)

An Alchemist, by David Teniers II (1610–1690)

A serene a quiet little corner, with few vessels and one stove. The alchemist is more a philosophical type, old, and probably learned because there are several books on the floor, but he doesn't seem to have accomplished much. He is reading a recipe which he is making on the table.


An Alchemist in His Laboratory , David Teniers II (1610–1690)

An Alchemist in His Laboratory , David Teniers II (1610–1690)

A nice painting with vivid colors, depicting an wealthy alchemist. Nice green velvet cloth on the table, A more expensive chair, coat and hat. He is somewhat learned; a few books on a bookshelf in the back, and one on the table. He can afford three helpers. He looks proud on what he has accomplished, holding a viol with liquid in his hand.