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.

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Did you know that…


Acanthostega – 8-fingered “found link” between fish and tetrapods (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

… five-fingered hand is an accident, not inevitability. Many ancient amphibia had 6-7-8 fingers, but their descendants did not survive until our time. Imagine  how beautiful a piano concerto for 8-fingered musicians would be.

5-fingered people would be considered suffering  from oligodactyly  (oligo-, having liitle + daktulos – finger)  and “normal” people would be amazed that they can do almost everything, such as walking and writing.

2  hands + 2 feet body plan is not an  inevitability either, just a result of a fish with two front and two tail fins crawling on the land. The ancient fish had different  fins arrangement, including extra pairs of fins. I think two pairs of hand would have increased the brain size as well – probably we would have colonised the Solar system by now.

Blue 6-limbed latimeria – ancestor of  Kali

Famous actress Kali during the shoot of "Invaders from Mars"

Famous actress Kali during the shoot of “Invaders from Mars”