The alchemist is exhausted in his workshop, which bears witness to eager activity, sinking down and gently falling asleep. In his right hand he still holds the pen with which, until recently, he recorded his observations in the book opened in front of him. The fire of the alchemical furnace is extinguished, the tool lies scattered in front of it as if it had been dropped in the middle of the activity. The time of death cannot be far back. It is a strange tension between zealous work and the silence of death that dominates this image. The search for the Philosopher’s Stone, so often praised in various manuscripts, seems to have failed. The journey of the adept remains unfinished. It is a picture of desperation and surrender that Elihu Vedder draws here with his work The Dead Alchemist.
The American artist used a pictorial formula that was unknown until then, even though alchemist workshops were a very popular subject, especially in Dutch genre painting of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, too, Opus magnum occasionally goes wrong and often flies up against the gold-maker’s ears in his Sudel kitchen. However, the failure shown here cannot be compared with that of the foolish alchemists. The Dutch painters do not know the dead adept.
So how does Vedder come up with this picture theme?
The Vedder biographer, Regina Soria, has a simple answer to this question. In his painting, the artist deals with a childhood trauma; an old man who had lived in the attic of his parents’ house as a subtenant was found dead one day. This work is certainly marked in the context of Vedder’s general fascination with melancholic-dark and melodramatic pictorial subjects, as well as by his great thirst for knowledge, which has lasted since childhood and also extended to occult fields of knowledge:
“He [Vedder] spent long hours in his grandfather’s garret, where he had discovered on old volume, ‘without cover or page title’, which seemed to contain ‘all the wisdom of all the arts and sciences of ancient and modern times. It wandered from astronomy to the construction of a bird-organ; from painting, sculpture, and architecture to fortune-telling; from directions for making a clepsydra, or water-clock, to the proper wood for a divining rod’ (…) ”
The history of alchemy
What does the theme of alchemy have to do with a painting of the 19th century – a time in which practical alchemy had long since merged with modern chemistry and was practiced only in its spiritual form5 in occult circles? After Helmut Gebelein6 and Richard Caron, alchemy was in decline at the time. However, paintings like the Vedders at least suggest that their legacy was still tangible and that “royal art ” had lost nothing of its fascination. Scientists, specifically chemists, were happy to deny alchemy as the mother of their own discipline. They vehemently tried to distinguish themselves from the alchemy associated with superstition, charlatanry and black magic. Here we let the chemist Thomas Thomson have his say:
“Chemistry, unlike the other sciences, originally from delusion and superstition, and was at its commencement exactly on a level with magic and astrology. Even after it began to be useful to man, by furnishing him with better and more powerful medicines than the ancient physicians were acquainted with, it was long before it could shake off the trammels of alchymy [sic!], which hung upon it like a nightmare, cramping and blunting all its energies, and exposing it to the scorn and contempt of the enlightened part of mankind. ”
From these lines, shame and pride speak in equal parts
The dark past of chemistry cannot be undone, but, and this becomes clear, it has now been left behind and can be looked back on as an enlightened being and become aware of its erroneous belief. In the scientific discourse around the turn of the century between the 18th and 19th centuries, alchemy was stylized as a negative example that had to be left behind.
One graphic that thematizes precisely this turning point is John Chapman’s color cast from 1805, which depicts an allegory of chemistry.10 At first glance, it is a well-known pictorial formula: the working alchemist, in contrast to Vedder’s painting here alive and kicking, sits in the midst of various alchemical devices and books in a sparsely lit chamber. However, it is the events that take place in the middle and background that are more interesting and give the picture and its interpretation an interesting twist. We see a crowned lady in a white robe. The globe in her hand betrays her identity, it is a personification of the world. She turns her back on the laboring alchemist and instead turns to a younger man sitting in penumbra. Curious and interested, Frau Welt looks at what he is doing. He conducts an experiment with oxygen. The direction of the light is also striking. The beam of light falls on the two young, almost flirting people, as well as on an open book. There the word “Chemistry” is clearly to be read. The attributes of the alchemist, on the other hand, sink into darkness. Although it was placed in the foreground, it is the chemistry that dominates the picture, due to the way the light is directed and the direction of the young woman’s gaze. The message is clear: the world has turned its attention away from alchemy and is now turning to young, more attractive and interesting chemistry.
The light of alchemy will go out
This change must also be read as a subtext in Vedder’s painting. The alchemist is dead and the alchemy with him. His time is over, the era of chemistry has begun. With the peaceful, almost beautiful death of the protagonist, Vedder implies regret for this change. Alchemy, so the not yet very old age of the alchemist suggests, still had potential and was torn out of life too early. Such considerations cannot be supported by statements by Vedder himself, the sources are missing. The meticulous and historically correct depiction of the various laboratory utensils, however, testifies to the artist’s determined examination of the history of alchemy, so that the alchemical legacy at least lived on visually.
Vedder and other artists of the 19th century, who devoted themselves to alchemistic themes partly out of romantic-historical transfiguration and partly out of an interest in the history of science, would certainly have been pleased that the alchemical discourse experienced a new flourishing at the beginning of the 20th century. With the discovery of radioactivity and its truly “transmuting” properties, alchemy was suddenly on everyone’s lips again, people spoke of “modern alchemy”. Chemistry and alchemy were reconciled. Thus the death of the alchemist and of alchemy was rather a longer sleep in order to revive the alchemical heritage in a “transmuted” manifestation – the discipline itself experienced the alchemical principle of “dying and becoming”.
Corinna Gannon is a master student of art history at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. In 2015 she completed her Bachelor’s degree in Art History and English Studies with a thesis on the pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her current research focuses on the relationship between art and alchemy, especially in Victorian England. Her master’s thesis deals with the English artist Evelyn De Morgan.