A man stoops over a fireplace, using bellows to stoke the fire that heats the contents of a pot standing in the flames. He is an alchemist in the process of trying to turn base metals into silver or gold. His shabby and chaotic surroundings suggest that he is so obsessed with his work that he has neglected his other responsibilities, as well as squandering his possessions away. The loose, sketchy brushstrokes the artist has used to depict some of the items strewn on the floor, such as the dirty rags and straw, emphasise the disorder of the room.
The man’s family appear in the shadowy background: two young children entertain themselves while their mother wipes the bottom of the baby on her knee. The alchemist pays them no attention as he hunches over the fire, his eyes fixed on the task in front of him.
The man in the centre of this picture tends to a fire, using a pair of bellows to stoke the flames. He works in a chaotic, dingy room. Jars, bottles and tools are strewn across every available surface; plaster flakes off the walls, leaving bricks exposed.
A discarded piece of paper by the foot of the stool reads ‘oleum et operam perdis’ (meaning ‘oil and work is wasted’), words from the treatise De Re Metallica (‘On the Nature of Metals’). This book, published in 1556, provided information about the mining, refining and smelting of metals, and it helps to identify this man as an alchemist. A pair of glasses on top of the stool suggests that, before beginning to heat the pot on the fire, he had been studying the book. The belief that base metals could be transformed into silver and gold endured into the eighteenth century, but Adriaen van Ostade appears to be implying that it is an act of folly. The alchemist’s weary expression also suggests that this is a hopeless task.
The dark curtain used to separate the room into two sections has been drawn back, revealing the alchemist’s family in their living quarters. Two young children are left to entertain themselves while their mother wipes the bottom of the baby she holds. The alchemist pays them no attention, focusing instead on the pursuit of riches; they have been relegated to the shadowy background. Van Ostade has created a visual hierarchy to reinforce this idea: the highly detailed foreground contrasts with the more sketchy quality of the background figures and their surroundings. But even with this hierarchy, the two sections are still linked. Light infuses the spaces around both the alchemist and his family, and the glow connects the two sections in a diagonal line as well as drawing our eyes to the figures. Van Ostade has used a limited colour palette of warm purple and brownish hues to emphasise the shadows, and he was influenced by the strong contrasts of light and dark that Rembrandt used in his work.
The artist’s signature and date of the picture are depicted on a shovel that hangs on the wall next to the fireplace. This scene is typical of van Ostade, who was a prolific painter and etcher of peasant genre scenes.
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