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”.
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.
(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..?
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