Will Old Master ‘Alchemist’ strike gold in sale

A particularly large and impressive example, Interior of a laboratory with an Alchemist at work with a stuffed alligator hanging from a ceiling beam, leads Bonhams Old Master Paintings sale in London next month, with an estimate of £300,000-500,000.

David Teniers the Younger (Flemish, 1610-1690) Interior of a laboratory with an Alchemist at work and a stuffed iguana hanging from a ceiling beam

The search for the elusive ‘philosopher’s stone’ that would transform base metal into silver and gold – an unachievable process generally known as alchemy – was such a favourite subject for the 17th-century Golden Age Dutch painter David Teniers the Younger (Antwerp 1610-1690, Brussels) that he painted it at least a dozen times.

The painting is being sold to benefit the Eddleman Quantum Institute, University of California, Irvine. The goal of the Institute is to stimulate the discovery of new quantum science phenomena by developing collaborations between investigators in a broad range of scientific endeavours and to motivate future generations to study quantum science through educational and outreach activities.

Lisa Greaves, Head of Bonhams Old Master Paintings, said: “The painting most probably dates from the early 1650s when Teniers was employing more complex and subtle tonal harmonies. It is one of his earliest pictures on the theme of alchemy, a subject that was very popular with Dutch and Flemish artists of the time. The scene, set in a spacious workshop strewn with books, glassware, ceramic pots, vials and a stuffed alligator hung from the ceiling, offered this wonderfully accomplished artist the opportunity to demonstrate his skills in still life painting.”

A widely known drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Breda 1525/30 – 1569, Brussels) of around 1588 depicted an alchemist and his family reduced to penury by the obsessive pursuit of an impossible dream (Teniers’ wife was Bruegel’s granddaughter). By the time Teniers tackled the subject, however, alchemy had acquired respectability. It has been adopted by the middle classes and its techniques – such as distillation and metallurgy – were recognised as having practical scientific and industrial applications.

Writing in the winter edition of Bonhams Magazine, the art critic Martin Gayford said: “Teniers Alchemist, rather than a satire on folly, seems more like a study of the proto scientist in his laboratory, with assistants engaged on some pioneering research.”

A later generation of Dutch painters is represented in the sale by a witty and wonderfully accomplished painting by Willem Van Mieris the Elder (Leiden 1662-1747). A trumpeter at a casement window with another figure holding an upturned wine glass was painted in 1689. It is an early work executed not long after he started collaborating with his father, Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-1781). These early works typically employed the same technique and subject matter as Frans’s, with the same enamel-like smoothness and virtuosity in the display of detail. The elegant musician and drinker depicted in this picture were favourite motifs of the Leiden ‘Fine’ Painters, as was the perspective by which they are shown through a finely carved, arched stone window. The painting carries an estimate of £50,000-70,000.

Willem Van Mieris the Elder (Leiden 1662-1747) A trumpeter at a casement window with another figure holding an upturned wine glass

Other highlights of the sale, which consists of 72 lots, include a study for The wounded Cuirassier by Théodore Géricault (Rouen 1791-1824, Paris). This preparatory sketch for the Le Cuirassier blessé, quittant le feu (The wounded Cuirassier), now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, was previously unknown and offers a significant and exciting insight into the working process of the young Théodore Géricault. It represents the artist’s first thoughts for one of his earliest major works, effectively a pendant to his earlier Officier de chasseurs à cheval de la garde impériale chargeant (Charging chasseur), also now in the Louvre, which he had shown, to great acclaim, at the Salon of 1812 (the annual Salon took place over several weeks in the autumn). Showing a mounted Napoleonic cavalry officer ready to attack, the heroic image of the Charging chasseur was painted at a moment of immense national pride with Napoleon’s victories still fresh in the national memory. The wounded Cuirassier of two years later, however, comes after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia in the winter of 1812 and his eventual abdication. It carries an estimate of £30,000-50,000.

Théodore Géricault (Rouen 1791-1824 Paris) A study for The wounded Cuirassier

The sale takes place on December 7.