The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
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The Alchemist by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

  • The ancient art of alchemy is the subject of this painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger
  • The remarkable work is after an important 1558 drawing by his father, Bruegel the Elder
  • Unique in his oeuvre, The Alchemist was likely a special commission for an important client
  • Brueghel's work is a symbol of man’s folly in his quest for unearned gold
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Pieter Brueghel the Younger
1564/65-1636 • Flemish

The Alchemist

Oil on oak panel

A work of remarkable complexity and importance, this incredible 17th–century painting was created by the famed Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Entitled The Alchemist, this highly detailed piece is a recently rediscovered masterwork after a significant drawing by his father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Painted with remarkable finesse and his renowned eye for detail, this tour-de-force of Flemish painting stands as one of Brueghel’s greatest masterpieces.

While Brueghel the Younger often made numerous copies in different formats for each of his compositions, The Alchemist is fairly unique in his oeuvre. This distinctive painting by the renowned artist was almost certainly a special commission for an important client who wished to be the singular owner of this impressive scene. While the painter took inspiration from the 1558 drawing by his father (which is now held in the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin), he offers here his own unique interpretation, adding dynamic color and vitality to the complex scene.

The intricate work depicts a subject of great interest of the time – the alchemist. The science of alchemy, or the attempt to transform one metal into another, was practiced from antiquity through the 17th century. Beginning in the 15th century, the practice was first known to attract frauds and conmen, and by the time of Bruegel the Elder, the practice was completely discredited. This scene offers a rather satirical portrait of the alchemist at work, standing as a symbol of man’s folly in their quest for unearned gold.

The alchemist, hunched over his work, is surrounded by a multitude of instruments in his makeshift laboratory. He is aided in his work by the scholar, who is hunched over a text that reads “Al Ghemist” (meaning “All is lost”), as well as the fool, frantically and futilely feeding air into the fire. The alchemist’s wife stands next to him, watching him throw their last gold coin into the crucible as she searches in vain through her flat purse. Brueghel reveals the conclusion of the story through the window in a clever example of a painted narrative, showing the ill-fated family being welcomed by the Church, the giver of charity. Indeed, the message of the work is clear: Folly often leads to ruin.

The complex composition is a veritable treasure trove of allegory and detail. From the richness of its colorful palette to the beautifully executed still life of books and scientific instruments throughout the work, this painting is the piece de resistance in Brueghel’s incredible oeuvre.

Its importance is only made greater by its extraordinary provenance. Once owned by the important Belgian painter Victor Lagye, the work was later sold to Max Rooses, a well-known art connoisseur and curator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. Remarkably, the original sale receipts from 1879 are still intact, and accompany this singular masterpiece.

Eldest son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Pieter Brueghel the Younger was born in Brussels in 1565. Brueghel was just five years old when his father died; after his death, he went to live with his maternal grandmother, who was an accomplished artist in her own right. He is most noted for his interpretations of his father’s works, as well as his compositions of fire and grotesque imagery, earning him the nickname "Hell Brueghel". His highly detailed images and allegorical subjects made him the most famous artist of his day.

The painting is accompanied by a letter of authenticity from Dr. Klaus Ertz, dated 21 December 2010, as well as the incredibly rare, original Lagye/Rooses sale receipts from 1879.

Circa 1600

Frame: 36 3/4" high x 48" wide
Canvas: 27” high x 37 3/4” wide

References:
German, Flemish and Dutch Painting, 1881, by H.J. Wilmot-Buxton and E.J. Poynter, p. 105 (illustrated)

Exhibitions:
Art and Alchemy: The Mystery of Transformation, Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, Germany, April – August 2014

Provenance:
Victor Lagye (Gent 1825-1896), until 1879
Max Rooses (Antwerp 1839-1914); thereby direct descent
Remained in Belgium until 2007 when Rooses’ heirs moved to the Principality of Liechtenstein
Sold to a private collector in the Principatlity of Liechtenstein in 2010
specifications
Artist: Brueghel, Pieter the Younger
Framed:48"W x 36 3/4"H
Unframed:37 3/4"W x 27"H
Period: Pre-18th Century
Origin:Netherlands
Subject:Genre
Width:48 Inches
Height:36 3/4 Inches
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