Old Master Paintings / David Teniers the Younger (Antwerp 1610-1690 Brussels) Interior of a laboratory with an Alchemist at work and a stuffed alligator hanging from a ceiling beam
£300,000 - £500,000
David Teniers the Younger (Antwerp 1610-1690 Brussels)
oil on canvas
signed 'D. TENIERS. FC' (lower right)
71.8 x 88.2cm (28 1/4 x 34 3/4in).
Mr Stanley, by whom imported from Spain and sold in 1824 for 95 guineas
Lord Radstock, before 1826
Sale, Christie's, London, 13 May 1826, lot 28 (as 'This noble cabinet picture was formerly in the Collection of the King of Spain', sold for 320 guineas to Lord Northwick)
Lord Northwick, Thirlestane House, Cheltenham
His sale, Thirlestane House, 23 August 1859, (17th day) lot 1690 (sold for 675 guineas to Agnew)
With Charles Sedelmeyer, Paris, 1897, no. 42
Edward R. Bacon Esq., New York, and by descent to his sister-in-law
Mrs Virginia Pirdy Bacon, Netherdale House, Turiff, Aberdeenshire, by whom offered
Sale, Christie's, London, 12 December 1919, lot 103 (sold for 560 guineas to Campbell)
Campbell Family and thence by descent until offered
Sale, Christie's, London, 6 April 1984, lot 60 (as Property of a Gentleman)
The Linda and Gerald Guterman Collection,
Their sale, Sotheby's, New York, 14 January 1988, lot 37
Roy T. Eddleman Trust
On loan to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia (later the Science History Institute).
J. Smith, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, London, 1831, vol. III, p. 398, no. 520
J. Smith, Supplement to the Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of the Most Eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters, 1842, vol. IX, p. 452, no. 139
A. Moore (et al), The Paston Treasure: microcosm of the known world, New Haven and London, 2018, pp. 458-9, ill. pl. 252
Like The Alchemist of 1649 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and An Alchemist in his Workshop (which sold for a hammer price of £443,360, Christie's, 29 October 2019, lot 629) the present impressive sized canvas is among the finest examples of approximately a dozen known depictions of this subject by Teniers. According to the theories of the time, it was thought possible that a base metal could be purified and turned into gold from the discovery of an elusive substance known as the "philosopher's stone." Thus, the alchemist is depicted here on the right of the composition holding a pair of bellows which would be used to assist in the heating process that was believed to be necessary in the transmutation of elements. This scene, set in a spacious workshop strewn with books, glassware, ceramic pots, vials and a stuffed alligator hung from the ceiling, offered this accomplished artist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills in still life painting.
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 most likely dates to the early 1650s, making it one of his earliest treatments of the subject. An important source of inspiration for Teniers and his contemporaries would undoubtedly have been a drawing by Pieter Brueghel the Elder of an Alchemist's Workshop of circa 1558 (Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin), which was widely known shortly after that date through a print made by Philips Galle (fig.1). Indeed, Teniers would have most likely been only too well acquainted with Brueghel's design, having married his granddaughter, Anna, in 1637. The approaches of the two artists, however, reveal very different takes on the subject.
In Brueghel's equally detailed image the alchemist is shown sitting at the hearth of a dilapidated kitchen, 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 hunched behind him emptying the contents of an already empty purse. While the alchemist's shabby attire signified the family's desperate poverty, the absurdity of the situation is comparable to the modern stereotype of the mad scientist. The message is that the alchemist neglects himself as much as his family in the single-minded pursuit of his occupation. The Latin verse appended to Florentius Schoonhovius's Emblemata (Gouda, 1618), in which an alchemist similarly stokes a fire with a pair of bellows, states: 'While I pursue uncertainly with certain means, I convert everything into smoke and worthless ash'. Judging from the number of alchemical treatises published through much of Europe in the seventeenth century, interest in the subject was then 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 and by the time Teniers created this scene, the rising merchant classes were trying alchemy too and we do not find the previous moralizing associations with witchcraft and charlatanry in this artist's compositions. Although the practice of alchemy was still controversial, its techniques — such as distillation and metallurgy — were in fact contributing significantly to science and industry. It should be remembered that no lesser a scientist than Isaac Newton was a practitioner of alchemy, motivated by the search for the 'philosopher's stone' in the hope of turning base metals into gold. 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 himself, seated preparing his pigments in a bowl at a window. And it was undoubtedly an equal affinity with this particular subject that will have lay behind the acquisition of this work, as well as lot 58, by the Roy Eddleman Trust and their loan to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia (later the Science History Institute), perfectly bringing together the late owner's interests in both art and science.
Margret Klinge confirmed the attribution to David Teniers at the time of the last sale.