The Wallace Collection

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The Village Alchemist
  • Jan Steen (1626 - 1679)
  • The Village Alchemist
  • Netherlands
  • early 1660s
  • Painting
  • Oil on oak panel
  • Image size: 41.7 x 29.8 cm
  • Signature: 'JSteen', the 'JS' in monogram
  • P209
  • East Galleries II
Further Reading
  • A characteristically comic and satirical work, this painting shows an alchemist hunched and staring into space, like one driven mad by his research, oblivious to the poverty of his surroundings. He is prematurely aged by obsession, in contrast to the despairing young wife and child pictured in the background. Two stock visual emblems, to which the woman draws our attention, underline the narrative: empty money bags suspended from the ceiling together with a bloated bladder symbolizing delusion. The folly of the alchemist’s quest is further emphasized by the inclusion of two common theatrical stooges, the hunchback and the boor. Although one of goals of alchemy was to change base metal into gold, Steen’s alchemist has grown old, poor and blind in his pursuit of his aim. The work can be dated to the early 1660s, shortly after Steen’s move from Warmond to Haarlem.