GALLERIES/Daxer & Marschall
PROVENANCE:Possibly Sir Robert Strange (1721-92), London, 1771;
Sold at auction (possibly by Strange), London, 1771 (exact auction date unknown) for £10. 15s. to Lord Clive;
Sir Francis Bourgeois (1753-1811), London;
Samuel Jones-Loyd, first, and only Baron Overstone (1796-1883), 2 Carlton Gardens, London, 1854;
By inheritance to his daughter, Lady Harriet Sarah Loyd-Lindsay Wantage, née Overstone (1837-1920), the wife of Brigadier General Robert James Loyd-Lindsay, first, and only Baron Wantage (1832-1901);
Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, London, 1926;
With Jacques Goudstikker, Herengracht 458, Amsterdam, 1927, inv. no. 1;
Possibly with Mr. Schuddebeurs, Amsterdam (date unknown);
Hans C. W. Tietje, Amsterdam;
By whom sold to Daniel Wolf (1898-1943), 'Groot Haesebroek', Wassenaar, in April 1938 for 75,000 florins;
Sold by Ms. De Vries Reilingh to Alois Miedl at the Goudstikker Gallery, Amsterdam without authorization in July 1940 for 23,000 florins;
By whom sold to Galerie Maria Almas-Dietrich, Munich, for Sonderauftrag Linz, 79,620 Reichsmark, 12 September 1940, inv. 994;
Munich, Munich Central Collection Point, June 1945, inv. 1656;
Restituted to the heirs of Daniel Wolf by the Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit (SNK) [Netherlands Art Property Foundation] 31 March 1948;
Private collection, the Netherlands.
Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English masters, exhib. cat., London, British Institution, 1850;
Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain (…), London 1854, III, p. 27, and IV (supplement), p. 137 (described as hanging in the small drawing room of Lord Overstone, Carlton Gardens, London);
Exhibition of the works of the Old Masters, associated with works of Deceased Masters of the British School, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1871, p. 19, no. 196 (lent by Lord Overstone);
Robert James Loyd-Lindsay Wantage et al., Collection of pictures forming the collection of Lord and Lady Wantage (…), London 1902, no. 221 and 1905, p. 155, no. 221;
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke (…), Esslingen 1907, no. 229/231 (with incorrect measurements);
Wilhelm Martin, ‛De Jan Steen tentoonstelling te Londen’ in Onze Kunst, XVI, July-December 1909, p. 164;
Abraham Bredius, Jan Steen, The Hague 1927, p. 23, plate XCVI;
Schmidt Degener, H. E. van Gelder, Jan Steen. Forty reproductions in photogravure of the artist’s principal works, with a critical study (…), London 1927, pp. 62-3, no. XXVI, repr.;
Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 24 November 1957, p. 2, repr. (incorrectly dated 1669);
A.A.A.M. Brinkman, De alchemist in de prentkunst, Amsterdam 1982, p. 49, fig. 12;
Karel Braun, Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen, Rotterdam 1980, p. 120, under cat. no. 249, repr. p. 121, no. 249a;
John Ingamells, Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures IV – Dutch and Flemish, London 1992, p. 360, under no. P209;
Leon Krempel, Holländische Gemälde im Städel Museum, 1550-1800, Petersberg 2005, II: Künstler geboren 1615 bis 1630, pp. 287-8, under inv. 898, fig. 217;
Dana Kelly-Ann Rehn, The image and identity of the alchemist in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art, diss., University of Adelaide, 2011, p. 126, fig. 9.
Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English Masters, London, British Institution, 1850 and 1851 (lent by Lord Overstone);
Exhibition of the works of the Old Masters, associated with works of Deceased Masters of the British School, London, Royal Academy of Arts, May-June 1871;
Loan exhibition of pictures by Jan Steen, London, Dowdeswell Galleries, 1909, no.15 (lent by Lady Wantage, London);
Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, 16 June-31 August 1926, no. 50 (lent by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, London);
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, date unknown (lent by Mr. Schuddebeurs, Amsterdam, according to a label on the stretcher).
FURTHER INFORMATION:Alchemy and astrology are traditions that reach far back into antiquity. Just as astrology sees in the constellations a direct influence on human lives, alchemy is guided by the belief that substances have a practical application which human beings should exploit to their own advantage. In early modern Europe, alchemy was increasingly preoccupied with transmutation, the process of turning base metals into gold. Contemporary society regarded the alchemist either as a scholar vainly searching for ultimate truth or as a charlatan. In painting, the portrayal of the alchemist is correspondingly diverse. The subject enjoyed particular popularity in Dutch seventeenth and eighteenth-century painting, offering a moralistic message and frequently, an element of caricature.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's (c.1525-69) satirical drawing The Alchemist is, without doubt, the most significant representation of the obsessive, luckless alchemist whose entire energy is invested in the fruitless activity of transmutation, ultimately driving both his family and himself to the poorhouse. The image was widely disseminated in engravings and had a formative influence on later generations of artists.
In the present painting, Jan Steen takes up the second of the two established ideas of the alchemist - the perception of the alchemist as a charlatan who cheats simple souls of their worldly goods. The setting is an alchemist's workshop. An anguished woman stands at the centre of the image. At her side is a small boy with a distraught expression, staring out at the viewer. The woman's money purse is prominently placed in the foreground and lies empty on the floor. The alchemist and his cronies have succeeded in stripping her of her jewellery and she has given her very last penny for the transmutation. The scribe, the elderly hunchback and the helper in the background hardly inspire confidence. One of the alchemist's cronies holds up a document as if to convince the woman of the imminent success of the transmutation. The alchemist turns towards her seeking eye contact. A sheet bearing the text of formula is ostentatiously attached to a beam at the upper right. This, too, is designed to inspire confidence in the actions taking place. Written in large letters on the sheet are the words THEOFRASTUS/ PARESELSIS ESHO, a reference to Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim - better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), the legendary doctor, alchemist and astrologer who chased the secret of the elixir of life. An important element in understanding Jan Steen's painting is that the woman has not handed over the lead or coloured metal such as copper or brass but silver jewellery and a large silver piece - of which the tricksters are on the point of defrauding her.
François Godefroy (1743-1819), in his engraved version of the painting, executed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, adheres to Steen's interpretation of the scene. The print bears a title in the lower margin and a six-line inscription of admonitory verse in French :
THE TRICKSTERS AND THE CREDULOUS PEASANT
The while your wife weeps, callous churl
Do you think from her jewels to make gold unfurl?
By the Earth created, never shall this precious Metal
By crucible be Sired.
Of these vile Imposters avoid the lure
Much they may promise, but little fulfil.
In his contribution to the catalogue of the major exhibition of Steen's work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996, Lyckle de Vries defines Steen's oeuvre as follows: "Even before Theophile Thore-Bürger characterized Jan Steen as a ‛painter of comedies' in 1858, many people had recognized humour and story-telling as the nucleus of his work. More than once he was called the 'Moliere of painters'. All the means available to a painter were made subservient to that narrative interest. The pictorial realization, which often refined but also occasionally careless in the details, is invariably at the service of the content. That content, seldom summarized in forthright inscriptions, is a succession of familiar lessons in living wisely: Ten Commandments and a thousand prohibitions. But this is not to characterize Jan Steen as a disgruntled moralist. He was more of a cabaret artist, comedian, or comic play writer who confronted his public with the old values and truths it loved, expressing himself not with words but with paint. The moralization, however, takes on an unexpected topicality as a result of Steen's provocative presentation. The choice between good and evil is once again as clear as day, and the audience's position no less so. The spectators may be kept briefly in a state of amusing confusion, but in the end ‛the others' are always the ones mocked for their foolish misbehaviour."
A literary source may also have influenced Steen's representation of the alchemist. In 1619, Richard Verstegen first published a volume of seventy-two character studies in prose titled 'Scherp-sinnighe characteren'. Three years later he published an extended version as Honderdt Geestige Caracteren, ofte Uitbeeldingen van Honderdt Verscheidene Personen, with no less than one hundred studies of characters from all levels of society. He gives an accurate description of the alchemist and emphasizes the trust that people such as the peasant woman depicted in the present painting foolishly place in the alchemist's hands: Een Alchemist is het Voedtster-kindt van de hoop, die hem altos mamt, en nimmermeer speent. Verstegen ends the chapter with a truthful and descriptive poem which directly recalls Steen's caricature of the obsessive alchemist:
Deplorable seekers of that which you will never find, More lamentable than ridiculous in your pursuit, Or both, because you still - like madmen - Buy losing lottery tickets at the expense of honour, health, money and labour. Surely your failure to find anything serves as a beacon of your squandering? So say, finally - all together now. Woe betide us alchemists!
The date of execution of the present painting - 1668 - falls within Steen's mature Haarlem period. In the same year, he produced two further paintings of alchemists. A very similar but much smaller version now in the collection of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt merits particular mention. There are a number of minor differences in terms of detail. It has only two staffage figures and there is a leaded window at the left, rather than an arched workshop entrance with a landscape view. Wouter Kloek sees the Frankfurt painting as preliminary to the present work.
With a provenance reaching back into the eighteenth century, the present painting not only occupies a key place in Jan Steen's oeuvre, but it is also one of the last remaining depictions of an alchemist by Steen in private hands.
We are grateful to Wouter Kloek, Emeritus Head Curator Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, for endorsing the attribution to Jan Steen after inspecting the painting.