The Alchymist, or to give it its full title The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorous, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers, is an oil painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797). First exhibited in 1771 at the Society of Artists, Wright reworked it in 1795, shortly before his death.
The Philosopher’s Stone is a mythical substance with the power to turn base metal into gold, but the awestruck alchymist has instead discovered a new element, phosphorous, the glow from which is lighting the faces of him and his assistants.[a]
The Alchymist is one in a series of nocturnes – dramatic night scenes – which built Wright’s reputation as a significant artist. He took some care in the scientific detail, and probably consulted Pierre Joseph Macquer’s Elements of the Theory and Practice of Chemistry, translated into English in 1758. Wright’s friend, the cartographer and artist Peter Perez Burdett, was carrying out his own chemical experiments in Liverpool, and provided some sketches of the apparatus that would be required to extract phosphorous from urine.
The art historian Benedict Nicolson has suggested that the overall layout of The Alchymist may have been inspired by Thomas Wijck’s painting The Alchemist, which also contains a confusion of objects and an assistant singled out by the light. Burdett also appears to have had a hand in influencing the layout, as his sketches clearly show the vaulting and where the central figure should be placed, with the focus on the glass container.
The Gothic arches, the costumes, and the overall setting of the painting suggest that Wright was depicting an actual historical event, the discovery of phosphorous one hundred years earlier. The supplicant alchemist, his arms raised in prayer, reflects an engraving in an influential book of spiritual alchemy, the Amphitreatrum Sapientae Aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom) (1602) by Heinrich Khunrath.
The Alchymist did not prove to be a commercial success, unlike Wright’s earlier work, and did not sell upon exhibition. He took it with him to Italy in 1773, where it also failed to sell, and it returned with him to England two years later. The painting remained in Wright’s studio for the remainder of his life, and after reworking it in 1795 he seems never to have offered it for sale again.
The painting is now in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery’s collection.
- Phosphorous exists in two main forms, white phosphorous, and red phosphorous. White phosphorous, first isolated in 1669, emits a faint glow when exposed to oxygen.