18th Century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “Alchemist discovering phosphorus”

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The picture, oil on canvas, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 1797), first  exhibited in 1771 with the original full title of “The Alchymist, in Search of    the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful  conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the ancient chymical  astrologers” (derbymuseums.org, 2014).

Joseph Wright was an English landscape and portrait painter, who was “the  first professional painter to express the spirit of the Industrial Revolution”.

 Historical Background

Just as astrology – study of cosmic objects alleged influence on human life –  was a forerunner of astronomy, alchemy was a predecessor of chemistry.  Alchemy studied ways to obtain a magical substance, Philosopher’s Stone,  which was supposed to be a source of eternal youth and, as a side effect,  converted common, cheap metals such as lead to gold.

“Alchemist discovering phosphorus” is the Wright’s depiction of a real event.  In 1669 German alchemist Henig Brand after collecting and evaporating  human urine discovered a waxy substance emitting white light. Later,  analysis has shown that the substance was a chemical element, phosphorus.

Picture description

(you can see more details here, scroll down to the static image)

In the right half of the picture, in the foreground there is a glass vessel (round flask) on a tripod connected to an oven made from brick. The flask has some liquid at the bottom and it is filled with bright white light. The grey-haired, bearded man wears a mantle, belted with green scarf. He stands on one knee, his gaze points up. One hand of the alchemist is on his knee, the other is parallel to earth.

In a half-arch around the alchemist, on the second plan there is a stand covered with green material and littered with books, plans and manuscripts and more flasks, an urn, and a globe. There is a large vessel between the oven and the stand. On the left of the picture, you can see two figures near the wall. These are apprentices extracting lead (Weeks, 1932). While the younger apprentice continues work, the older attracts his attention to the alchemist by pointing at him. A candle-like, dim flame illuminates them.

Behind the apprentices are two levels of shelves with more vessels made from different materials and, finally vaulted ceiling and window with the Moon just peeking through meshed glass.

                                                                     And the meaning of it is..?

Moses receiving the ten commandments, stained glass panel, Jakobskirche, Straubing. By Albrecht Dürer and Viet Hersvogel

The picture has religious connotations. The alchemist –    distinguished looking man – looks like a Biblical prophet                   ( see “Gathering of the Manna” by Guido Reni (1575 – 1642)) .  However, this appearance is subversive.The “prophet’ robes” are a  gown, which reveals a vest and trousers underneath. The  alchemist is in one of traditional positions of Moses receiving The  Ten Commandments. But in Moses’ pictures his hands usually  point upwards, to receive the    tablets. On the contrary the left  hand of the alchemist is on his knee  and his right hand is thrust outwards, parallel to earth as if to steady  the man. This gesture reminds of a famous picture of Plato and  Aristotle from The School  of Athens by Raphael, where Aristotle, antecessor of modern  science, spreads his palm toward Earth implying that all secrets of  the world are not dictated by the divine, but contained in the  material world.

God, who is very much present in the Dürer’s image is absent  in  Wright’s. Alchemist’s prayer  implies God, but  He does not  communicate via commandments on stone, but subtler way of  chemical elements. And we know that phosphorus, the main  source of light in the picture, is man-made.

And finally, the church-like surroundings  filled with very earthly  paraphernalia. In Wright’s words, prayer is “custom of the ancient chymical astrologers”, but a century later the hero is not absent  god, but the proto-scientist.

The blinding light in the focus of the picture serves as a metaphor  for the Enlightenment and reflects Enlightenment’s optimistic  attitude towards rational thinking and scientific progress. The  alchemist himself represents a bridge between magical and  rational thinking, and as such he becomes a mythical figure, put  in the familiar to 18th century viewer context of a Classical painting with heroic/prophetic central figure, even as the heroism shifts from a place of worship or battlefield into a private laboratory.

This meaning within a meaning and subtle propaganda strikes me as very “postmodern” and “meta”. Not bad for 18th century art.


Joseph Wright Gallery (2014)

F. D. Klingender, quoted in Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530 to 1790, Fourth Edition, New York, Viking Penguin, 1978; p. 285.

M.E. Weeks, THE DISCOVERY OF THE ELEMENTS. 11. ELEMENTS KNOWN TO THE ALCHEMISTS* Journal of chemical education, 1932, V 9 (1), 11-21



3 thoughts on “18th Century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “Alchemist discovering phosphorus”

  1. Pingback: 20th Century Art on Science: Gustav Klimt on Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence | Go Yeast

  2. Pingback: 18th century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “An Experiment on a Bird in an Ai | Go Yeast

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