The youthful ”alchemist” in this painting invitingly raises a vial or ampul at the viewer filled with an elixir. His calm and somewhat defiant look tell us the substance must be something of our interest. The elixir most probably is theriac or theriaca, a medical concoction originally formulated by the Greeks in the 1st century AD and since the middle ages considered to be a cure against all possible ailments and suffering. It was therefore readily sold at annual fairs by quacks and charlatans.
Since the sixteenth century there has been a tradition in the Netherlands, to which among others, the old Breughel has contributed, of small paintings with half figures or studies of heads. In the first half of the seventeenth century, David Teniers II’s fellow genre painters such as Adriaen Brouwer, Joos van Craesbeeck and David Ryckart III used this image format to record the effect of state of mind on facial expressions. The emphasis was on portraying the impulsive nature of man, with a starring role for the consequences of excessive use of alcohol and tobacco. Very different from, for example, Brouwer and Ryckaert, Teniers’ ‘quack’ in this picture does not seem to be the target of ridicule to expose man’s bad habits. Teniers painted him with great sympathy: the cheerful manner in which the ‘alchemist’ holds up the ampul to us with a cheeky expression in his eyes underlines that the painter is rather making fun of us, the viewer, for being too focussed on our health and wanting the goods he is offering.
This picture is a typical example of Tenier’s Brussels period, post 1651 (when the artist moved from Antwerp to Brussels). Characteristic of the work is a fine monochrome tone of yellow and brown. The paint is applied in several thin layers which partly allow the ground to show through and so contribute to the transparent effect.
Sale: Chevalier Francois-Xavier de Burtin, Brussels 21 July 1819, cat.no. 168; Sale: Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels December 1963, no. 672 (as: The Alchemist); Sale: 13 May 1970, no. 269; Gallery Jacques Leegenhoek Parijs, BRAFA Brussels Jan. 2006; a private Belgian collection; with Douwes Fine Art at TEFAF 2015 & BRAFA 2016; Private collection Belgium.
Francois-Xavier de Burtin, Traité théorique et praqtique des connoissances, Vol. II, Brussels MDCCC VIII, p. 516, no. 155 (Le Charlatan).
Literature for reference
Margret Klinge/Dietmar Lüdke (Ed.), ‘David Teniers der Jüngere 1610-1690. Alltag und Vergnügen in Flandern’, Karlsruhe 2005.
Frau Dr. Margret Klinge, 23 November 2006.