Age of Alchemy

By Science History Institute

Alchemy may conjure up thoughts of mysticism, occult rituals, quests for gold. But its golden age (ca. 1300–1700) was marked by experimental discovery and practical skill. Physicians and chymists working to heal the human body. Studying nature and matter to uncover its secrets. Change, creativity, and curiosity that helped shape our modern understanding of science.

The Bald-Headed Alchemist (17th Century) by David TeniersScience History Institute

This humble but busy workshop shows an alchemist at work before a furnace. He is stirring the contents of his crucible while reading a small book.

He may be following a recipe or glancing at his own notebook to remember an important detail. His young apprentice stands by, attentively looking for guidance.

In the background are two other assistants working at a lab bench. On the left is a small dog (sometimes a symbol of loyalty or diligence) lying near a large earthenware pot and several broken pot shards. These clay vessels may have broken from thermal shock when they were heated or cooled too quickly.

They remind us that alchemical processes can be messy and difficult.

The Search for the Alchemical Formula (1858) by Charles Meer WebbScience History Institute

During the 1600s and 1700s, alchemy enjoyed a golden age. But this picture was painted a century later, and models a very different attitude towards alchemical work. By the 1800s, modern chemistry had begun to take shape, and many chemists were eager to leave old ideas behind.

Notice that this alchemist is alone, rather than leading a busy workshop. His equipment is broken and his furniture is tattered and dusty.

Notice the skull at right—the alchemist's own gaze should lead you to it. It's as if he is contemplating his mortality and the end of an unsuccessful quest.

An Alchemist and His Assistant (17th century) by Hendrick HeerschopScience History Institute

This painting provides quite a contrast to the previous one. Instead of a shabby, solitary alchemist, we see a prosperous figure whose office is filled with tools of the trade, fine velvet cloth, and large (and expensive) illustrated books. Warm light from an open window makes the scene feel inviting and comfortable.

The alchemist glances up from his writing, quill in hand, as his assistant carries in a small vessel.

On the floor beside a mortar and pestle and a blue-and-white apothecary's jar, you can see an open page in one of his books. There are two illustrations inside: one botanical, the other anatomical. This suggests the alchemist's wide-ranging knowledge of medicine and his command over nature.

Rijcke-Armoede (Rich Poverty) (1632) by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne (1589–1662)Science History Institute

Adriaen van de Venne’s paintings were prized by his wealthy, aristocratic patrons for many reasons, but one of the most important was his playful wit and humor. This painting, “Rich Poverty,” is an ironic joke at the alchemist’s expense.

Although the alchemist works with gold in his crucible, in an effort to transform matter and gain riches, his actions only impoverish his family. Wealthy in imagination, but not in coin, this alchemist plays himself for a fool.

Van de Venne’s use of brunaille, a type of monochromatic painting that only uses tones of brown and sepia, was also part of the joke. Brunaille color palettes were typically used for somber, serious subjects—not this kind of sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek mockery.

Alchemist with Monkey (1600–1800) by In the Manner of David Teniers IIScience History Institute

Art and Alchemy

Alchemy and art are interconnected ways of seeing, and transforming, the world. Successful alchemists weren’t just good with chemicals: they were creative thinkers and problem-solvers. They closely studied the natural world in order to imitate it, and transformed raw materials into objects of beauty and value. Remind you of anyone? Artists and alchemists had a lot in common. Alchemists manufactured pigments that artists used in their paintings, while artists modeled new ways of seeing and knowing the world. The studio and the laboratory were closely connected. Certain artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci, even saw alchemy as a rival, competing to become the “master of nature.”

Art (Pendant to Science) (1650/1699) by After Gerard ThomasScience History Institute

This painting, and its companion picture “Science,” were designed to act as pendants, or a matching conceptual pair. They remind us that the “arts” and “sciences” were not always considered separate.

Although painting and laboratory work seem quite different to us today, art and experimental chemistry were once seen as two different but interlinked ways of investigating the natural world.

Science (Pendant to Art) (Late 17th century) by After Gerard ThomasScience History Institute

This painting is a “pendant” to the previous picture, titled “Art.” They were designed to demonstrate the similarities between art and science. Chemistry could teach us how metals and other matter worked, but art could help us understand our place in nature.

Notice that many pieces of the equipment that appears in each scene—especially the large celestial globes, patterned with star signs, at center—remain the same in each workshop.

Alchemist with Monkey (1600–1800) by In the Manner of David Teniers IIScience History Institute

The labors of this white-bearded alchemist are being closely watched by the monkey perched on the window above. Both alchemists and artists were sometimes called “apes of nature,” a teasing nickname that comes from their attempts to mimic nature (either by picturing it, or by trying to copy its processes).

Monkeys were known to be highly intelligent and to imitate the behaviors they observed, which is why they sometimes appear in paintings of alchemists’ laboratories—and also in paintings of artists’ studios.

The Alchemist (1600s) by Mattheus van HelmontScience History Institute

Both alchemists and artists were interested in understanding the human body—how it worked, how it moved, how it sickened or weakened, and how it could be healed. Painters studied anatomy, sometimes by using models like the écorché figure pictured here, which demonstrated the placement of muscle groups under the skin.

Alchemists studied products of the body, even waste products. The flask in this alchemist's hand likely contains urine, which was examined to diagnose disease (much like it is today).

Everywhere we look in this scene, we see material evidence of the pairing of art and alchemy. Drawings and prints rest beside glassware; globes and skulls sit next to books and jars.

An Alchemist in His Studio (1600s) by Thomas Wijck (1616–1677)Science History Institute

This thoughtful and intimate painting almost looks like a portrait. However, it is unlikely that the artist intended to show a representation of a specific person, rather than a general type. Wijck’s alchemist is a robust man in middle age, with a neatly trimmed beard and a fur-lined robe.

His workroom is cluttered but filled with large books, apothecary's jars, and fine glassware for distillation. There are many signs that this alchemist is serious, prosperous, and respectable. Look for the broken wax seals—in bright red—on the letter at right. Letters indicate communication and exchange: perhaps this alchemist is part of a network of experimenters sharing their secrets and new theories.

The Alchemist’s Studio (1650/1699) by Attributed to Gerard ThomasScience History Institute

Many of the globes that are pictured in alchemical paintings don’t represent maps of the earth. Instead, they show star charts. These are celestial globes, used in astronomy and astrology.

Why would an alchemist need to check the stars? Horoscopes and forecasts determined from celestial maps were believed to be useful when planning any major events—including starting a particularly difficult or dangerous chemical experiment. Celestial charts were also used to help diagnose sick patients and find any potential source for mental and physical illnesses. This bustling workshop shows evidence of both medicinal and metallurgical practices (work with metals).

Early Italian Pharmacy (17th century) by AnonymousScience History Institute

Women’s Work

Alchemists sometimes referred to their labors as “opus mulierum,” or “women’s work.” This is partly because many chemical processes—such as “washing” and purifying materials, or grinding and calcining (heating) materials—resembled processes that women relied on in their housework. But the truth goes beyond simple comparison. Women were active participants and experts in alchemy. They wrote recipe books, developed theories, and shared techniques through letters and exchanges. Though much of their work has been forgotten or ignored, women’s skills and discoveries shaped the age of alchemy.

An Alchemist’s Workshop with Children Playing (Late 17th century) by Richard BrakenburghScience History Institute

Have you ever heard (or said) the phrase, “do as I say, not as I do?” This alchemist’s wife probably wishes that her children had. Her family has been impoverished by attempts at making gold or finding a universal medicine: you can see children playing in an empty cupboard that should be filled with food.

Just below his mother's outstretched hand, one boy even mimics his father with a miniature “experiment” over a copper brazier. The mother's gesture pleads for her husband to provide a better example.

Brakenburgh likely intended this work to carry a moral message, as he also includes Christian symbolism in the form of a crucifix (at upper right) and a painting of the Holy Family, hung on the rear wall.

An Alchemist and His Family (ca. 1660) by Thomas WijckScience History Institute

Alchemists have a reputation for being hermits, but in reality, many had families or managed large workshops. The German alchemist and physician Andreas Libavius, in his 1607 book “Alchymia Triumphans” (Alchemy Triumphant), encouraged alchemists not to isolate themselves, but to enjoy the richness of family and social life. “By means of an honorable family,” he wrote, alchemy could be seen as a respectable art.

Here, kitchen and laboratory merge: a distillation apparatus sits on the hearth at left, as the alchemist’s wife cuts vegetables to feed her children. A stuffed iguana hangs overhead, a common trope in alchemical scenes that demonstrates knowledge of nature; but it is accompanied also by a taxidermy turtle, an animal which symbolized the safety and comfort of home.

The Alchemist and His Wife (ca. 1928) by Jacques HammererScience History Institute

This couple sits between a furnace and a table covered in jars and tools. The man, holding a crucible and tongs, turns to watch his partner point out a passage in her book. His active pose and her authoritative gesture suggest that they are experts working side-by-side. Laboratories and workshops were often collaborative spaces.

Curiously, this painting is a modern copy of a seventeenth-century original. You may notice that the varnish looks yellowed, as if it has darkened over centuries—but of course, it hasn't had time. The artist may have intentionally sped up the discoloration process or mixed pigments into the varnish to give it the look of a historical object.

Early Italian Pharmacy (17th century) by AnonymousScience History Institute

Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth-century English duchess and natural philosopher, once wrote that Nature itself is a “good housewife” who worked tirelessly. She believed that women were diligent and adaptive, and thus suited for the demands of chemistry.

In this panoramic painting, we see women engaged in chemical work at every stage of the process: from sorting sacks of herbs and vegetables (ready to be distilled into tonics), to tending fires and vessels, to mixing or measuring.

Though we also see a bearded man sitting before shelves of bottles—likely the shop’s master apothecary, as apothecary guilds did not admit women—this scene primarily demonstrates women’s knowledge and skill.

The Alchemist in his Study with a Woman Making Lace (ca. 1660) by Thomas WijckScience History Institute

In the 1600s, solitude was considered necessary for creative work. It was important to have peace and quiet and prevent interruption. But too much solitude was believed dangerous. It could lead to gloom, paranoia, or melancholy—a deep sadness or depressed introspection. This emotional condition was thought to be especially threatening for poets, philosophers, artists...and alchemists.

In Wijck’s scene, however, it isn’t the alchemist who appears to be lost in introspection, but his wife. She is shown paused in her work, over a common type of lap desk used to make lace. Her chin rests in her hands, a classic gesture of the melancholic thinker.

Surgeon Operating on a Man’s Foot (ca. 1820–1870) by After David Teniers the Younger (1610–1690)Science History Institute

Health and Medicine

Alchemy wasn’t only about going for the gold—it was also about finding a cure.Turning lead into gold wasn’t the only big transformation alchemists hoped to perform. They were also looking for a “universal panacea”—a cure for all disease. In the process, they created other remedies to heal, soothe, or purify. They studied and diagnosed sick bodies, sometimes by urinoscopy (examining patients’ urine) or checking other bodily fluids. Some of the materials alchemists used may strike us as dangerous or deluded, such as purgatives distilled from mercury, but these remedies could still produce “results” for patients. Certain theories of alchemical medicine (including the work of Swiss physician Paracelsus on “targeting” drugs within the body) continue to impact our thinking on health.

The Iatrochemist (Late 17th century) by Balthasar van den BossheScience History Institute

The clutter of objects at the front of this painting might suggest that the alchemist needs to pick up a broom, but it also shows the wide range of materials and tools that were used in making medicines.

At right, a portable metal furnace is surrounded by charcoal, which was used as a heat source, but also sometimes as an ingredient. At center there are glass alembics (vessels with long, thin necks) used to distill herbs and plants into tonics or essential oils.

The earthenware apothecary jars shown around the workroom have tight cloth lids: these were usually tied with string and sometimes sealed with wax to help prevent cures from spoiling. The alchemist shown here is probably performing a diagnosis by urinoscopy.

Alchemist Filling Wet Drug Jars (ca. 1650–1800) by AnonymousScience History Institute

The development of distillation, a process that reduces substances to their liquid essence with heat and time, was considered one of the most important inventions of the early modern era (between about 1500–1700). The earliest uses for distillation were medicinal: even certain spirits or liquors which are consumed today for their taste, were first created and used as agents for healing or soothing the body.

In this apothecary’s workshop a man pours distilled liquid from a jar into blue earthenware vessels. The artist of this painting was clearly eager to show off their talent for rendering different types of surfaces. Look at the way each different texture of copper, clay, glaze, straw, wood, and leaves has been carefully and distinctly painted.

The Iatrochemist (Late 18th Century) by Marie-Marc BilcoqScience History Institute

Painted a century later, this second scene of an iatrochemist (a chemist specializing in chemical medicine) demonstrates changes in attitudes towards alchemy. Note that the celestial globe—once used to help diagnose illness using astrology—is gone. Gone, too, is the bustling workshop full of assistants.

We see a single, solitary alchemist offering a glass to a young women, while the child at her side peers curiously at clay and copper vessels on the floor. Unlike many paintings created during the 1600s, this picture does not focus on the technology of the laboratory or show figures at work. Instead it offers a quietly nostalgic scene, as if the era of alchemy represented a “simpler” time.

The Village Chemist (1760) by Justus JunckerScience History Institute

Individuals who specialized in making medicines and other necessary goods were sometimes referred to as apothecaries rather than alchemists. Apothecaries acted much like modern pharmacists, dispensing drugs and remedies. They were typically important and respected members of their communities.

This picture shows an apothecary-chemist with a waiting customer at his side. Beyond the curtain at right, we see his assistants hard at work in the laboratory. The luxurious imported carpet across his desk, and his fine furnishings, are intended to demonstrate wealth and taste. Yet the skull on the shelf at left is also a warning against “vanitas” (vanity), a reminder of the human mortality we all share.

Alchemist Seated in His Laboratory (ca. 1887–1963) by Adolf Reich (1887–1963)Science History Institute

Whatever Happened to Alchemy?

Alchemy didn’t end. It transformed. The contemporary laboratory looks nothing like the ones pictured in this gallery, until we look closer. Long before the periodic table, or standard weights and measurements, aspiring chymists had to develop their own systems for carefully evaluating their materials and documenting their results. Some of their conventions were adapted by later chemists, though they now seem invisible to us. Alchemists’ manipulations of metals and other raw materials also shaped modern knowledge of matter and inspired breakthroughs in identifying elements and studying atomic structures. Alchemy is still here, though changed and reimagined.

Alchemist with Scale (19th century) by Johannes WeilandScience History Institute

Scales and balances were vital tools of the workshop, as many processes require exact ratios of materials. But this poses a few problems for aspiring alchemists.

First, the problem of sources: many recipes or instructions written between 1500 and 1750 did not include specific measurements. Authors of chemistry texts (as well as cookbooks) assumed that their readers would have the hands-on experience and skill to determine amounts on their own.

Second, the problem of standardization. Modern laboratories use the metric system for measurements, but metric was only adopted around 1799 and did not become common for several more decades. Other traditional measuring systems still circulated. It seems this alchemist has his work cut out for him.

The Alchemist (19th century) by François-Marius Granet (1775–1849)Science History Institute

This picture was painted well after the establishment of chemistry as a formal university discipline, yet it looks backwards to an earlier time. The atmosphere is peaceful and meditative, as if the work of the alchemist was similar to the contemplation of a monk in retreat or a scholar engaged in deep study.

The large window illuminates the room with warm daylight, reflecting against the glassware sparsely placed on upper shelves. At right, a long-necked alembic distills into a receiver placed in a water bath on the floor. For students of “new” chemistry in the mid-1800s, this image might have evoked wonder or nostalgia for the discoveries of a bygone era.

The Alchemist (1937) by N. C. WyethScience History Institute

N. C. Wyeth is most famous for his work as an illustrator for books and magazines. His paintings were reproduced in the pages of classic adventure stories, like Treasure Island and Robin Hood. Here, Wyeth has turned the alchemist into a wizard-like figure who would be more at home with King Arthur and Merlin than with a laboratory.

Although it’s obvious that Wyeth studied older images of alchemy for inspiration—you can compare the accuracy of his glass distilling vessels to other, earlier paintings in this gallery—the fanciful costume of the young man at center, and the radiant castle in the clouds seen through the open window, gives this painting an unusually dreamlike charm.

Credits: Story

Curated and written by Elisabeth Berry Drago, Science History Institute

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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