Jan Steen

Jan Steen
(1626 - Leiden - 1679)

The Alchemist, 1668

Oil on canvas, 106 x 82 cm
Signed and dated lower left JSteen 1668 (the initials JS in ligature)

Possibly Sir Robert Strange (1721-92), London, 1771;
Sold at auction (possibly by Strange), London, 1771 (exact auction date unknown) for £10. 15s. to Lord Clive1;
Sir Francis Bourgeois (1753-1811), London2;
Samuel Jones-Loyd, first, and only Baron Overstone (1796-1883), 2 Carlton Gardens, London, 18543;
By inheritance to his daughter, Lady Harriet Sarah Loyd-Lindsay Wantage, née Overstone (1837-1920), the wife of Brigadier General Robert James Loyd-Lindsay, first, and only Baron Wantage (1832-1901)
Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, London, 19264;
With Jacques Goudstikker, Herengracht 458, Amsterdam, 1927, inv. no. 15;
Possibly with Mr. Schuddebeurs, Amsterdam (date unknown)6;
Hans C. W. Tietje, Amsterdam7;
By whom sold to Daniel Wolf (1898-1943), ‘Groot Haesebroek’, Wassenaar, in April 1938 for 75,000 florins8;
Sold by Ms. De Vries Reilingh to Alois Miedl at the Goudstikker Gallery, Amsterdam without authorization in July 1940 for 23,000 florins9;
By whom sold to Galerie Maria Almas-Dietrich, Munich, for Sonderauftrag Linz, 79,620 Reichsmark, 12 September 1940, inv. 99410;
Munich, Munich Central Collection Point, June 1945, inv. 1656
Restituted to the heirs of Daniel Wolf by the Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit (SNK) [Netherlands Art Property Foundation] 31 March 194811;
Private collection, the Netherlands.

Catalogue of pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English masters, exhib. cat., London, British Institution, 1850;
Gustav Friedrich Waagen, Treasures of Art in Great Britain (…), London 1854, III, p. 27, and IV (supplement), p. 137 (described as hanging in the small drawing room of Lord Overstone, Carlton Gardens, London);
Exhibition of the works of the Old Masters, associated with works of Deceased Masters of the British School, exhib. cat., London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1871, p. 19, no. 196 (lent by Lord Overstone);
Robert James Loyd-Lindsay Wantage et al., Collection of pictures forming the collection of Lord and Lady Wantage (…), London 1902, no. 221 and 1905, p. 155, no. 221;
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke (…), Esslingen 1907, no. 229/231 (with incorrect measurements);
Wilhelm Martin, ?De Jan Steen tentoonstelling te Londen’ in Onze Kunst, XVI, July-December 1909, p. 164;
Abraham Bredius, Jan Steen, The Hague 1927, p. 23, plate XCVI;
Schmidt Degener, H. E. van Gelder, Jan Steen. Forty reproductions in photogravure of the artist’s principal works, with a critical study (…), London 1927, pp. 62-3, no. XXVI, repr.;
Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 24 November 1957, p. 2, repr. (incorrectly dated 1669);
A.A.A.M. Brinkman, De alchemist in de prentkunst, Amsterdam 1982, p. 49, fig. 12;
Karel Braun, Alle tot nu toe bekende schilderijen van Jan Steen, Rotterdam 1980, p. 120, under cat. no. 249, repr. p. 121, no. 249a;
John Ingamells, Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures IV – Dutch and Flemish, London 1992, p. 360, under no. P209;
Leon Krempel, Holländische Gemälde im Städel Museum, 1550-1800, Petersberg 2005, II: Künstler geboren 1615 bis 1630, pp. 287-8, under inv. 898, fig. 217;
Dana Kelly-Ann Rehn, The image and identity of the alchemist in seventeenth-century Netherlandish art, diss., University of Adelaide, 2011, p. 126, fig. 9.

Pictures by Italian, Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, French and English Masters, London, British Institution, 1850 and 1851 (lent by Lord Overstone);
Exhibition of the works of the Old Masters, associated with works of Deceased Masters of the British School, London, Royal Academy of Arts, May-June 1871;
Loan exhibition of pictures by Jan Steen, London, Dowdeswell Galleries, 1909, no.15 (lent by Lady Wantage, London);
Leiden, Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, 16 June-31 August 1926, no. 50 (lent by the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, London);
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, date unknown (lent by Mr. Schuddebeurs, Amsterdam, according to a label on the stretcher).

François Godefroy (Bois-Guillaume 1743 - 1819 Paris) in reverse, under the title Les souffleurs et le paisan crédule, circa 1758-83 (Fig. 2).


Alchemy and astrology are traditions that reach far back into antiquity. Just as astrology sees in the constellations a direct influence on human lives, alchemy is guided by the belief that substances have a practical application which human beings should exploit to their own advantage. In early modern Europe, alchemy was increasingly preoccupied with transmutation, the process of turning base metals into gold. Contemporary society regarded the alchemist either as a scholar vainly searching for ultimate truth or as a charlatan. In painting, the portrayal of the alchemist is correspondingly diverse. The subject enjoyed particular popularity in Dutch seventeenth and eighteenth-century painting, offering a moralistic message and frequently, an element of caricature.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c.1525-69) satirical drawing The Alchemist (Fig. 1) is without doubt the most significant representation of the obsessive, luckless alchemist whose entire energy is invested in the fruitless activity of transmutation, ultimately driving both his family and himself to the poorhouse. The image was widely disseminated in engravings and had a formative influence on later generations of artists.

Fig. 1 Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Alchemist, brown ink on paper, 308 x 452 mm, Kupferstichkabinett Berlin, inv. K.d.Z. 4399

In the present painting Jan Steen takes up the second of the two established ideas of the alchemist – the perception of the alchemist as a charlatan who cheats simple souls of their worldly goods. The setting is an alchemist’s workshop. An anguished woman stands at the center of the image. At her side is a small boy with a distraught expression, staring out at the viewer. The woman’s money purse is prominently placed in the foreground and lies empty on the floor. The alchemist and his cronies have succeeded in stripping her of her jewelry and she has given her very last penny for the transmutation. The scribe, the elderly hunchback and the helper in the background hardly inspire confidence. One of the alchemist’s cronies holds up a document as if to convince the woman of the imminent success of the transmutation. The alchemist turns towards her seeking eye contact. A sheet bearing the text of a formula is ostentatiously attached to a beam at the upper right. This, too, is designed to inspire confidence in the actions taking place. Written in large letters on the sheet are the words THEOFRASTUS/ PARESELSIS ESHO12, a reference to Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim – better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541), the legendary doctor, alchemist and astrologer who chased the secret of the elixir of life. An important element in understanding Jan Steen’s painting is that the woman has not handed over lead or colored metal such as copper or brass but silver jewellery and a large silver piece – of which the tricksters are on the point of defrauding her.

François Godefroy (1743-1819), in his engraved version13 of the painting, executed in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, adheres to Steen’s interpretation of the scene. The print bears a title in the lower margin and a six-line inscription of admonitory verse in French14:


The while your wife weeps, callous churl
Do you think from her jewels to make gold unfurl?
By the Earth created, never shall this precious Metal
By crucible be Sired.
Of these vile Imposters avoid the lure
Much they may promise, but little fulfil.

Fig. 2 François Godefroy (1743-1819), Les souffleurs et le paisan crédule, engraving in reverse after Jan Steen, 331 x 254 mm15

In his contribution to the catalogue of the major exhibition of Steen’s work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1996, Lyckle de Vries defines Steen’s oeuvre as follows: “Even before Theophile Thore-Bürger characterized Jan Steen as a ?painter of comedies’ in 1858, many people had recognized humor and story-telling as the nucleus of his work. More than once he was called the ‘Moliere of painters’. All the means available to a painter were made subservient to that narrative interest. The pictorial realization, which often refined but also occasionally careless in the details, is invariably at the service of the content. That content, seldom summarized in forthright inscriptions, is a succession of familiar lessons in living wisely: Ten Commandments and a thousand prohibitions. But this is not to characterize Jan Steen as a disgruntled moralist. He was more of a cabaret artist, comedian, or comic play writer who confronted his public with the old values and truths it loved, expressing himself not in words but in paint. The moralization, however, takes on an unexpected topicality as a result of Steen’s provocative presentation. The choice between good and evil is once again as clear as day, and the audience’s position no less so. The spectators may be kept briefly in a state of amusing confusion, but in the end ?the others’ are always the ones mocked for their foolish misbehavior.”16

A literary source may also have influenced Steen’s representation of the alchemist. In 1619, Richard Verstegen first published a volume of seventy-two character studies in prose titled Scherp-sinnighe characteren. Three years later he published an extended version as Honderdt Geestige Caracteren, ofte Uitbeeldingen van Honderdt Verscheidene Personen, with no less than one hundred studies of characters from all levels of society. He gives an accurate description of the alchemist and emphasizes the trust that people such as the peasant woman depicted in the present painting foolishly place in the alchemist’s hands: Een Alchemist is het Voedtster-kindt van de hoop, die hem altos mamt, en nimmermeer speent.17 Verstegen ends the chapter with a truthful and descriptive poem which directly recalls Steen’s caricature of the obsessive alchemist:

Deplorable seekers of that which you will never find, More lamentable than ridiculous in your pursuit, Or both, because you still – like madmen – Buy losing lottery tickets at the expense of honour, health, money and labour. Surely your failure to find anything serves as a beacon of your squandering? So say, finally – all together now. Woe betide us alchemists!18

Fig. 3 Jan Steen, The Alchemist, oil on canvas, 34 x 28.5 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, inv. no. 898

The date of execution of the present painting – 1668 – falls within Steen’s mature Haarlem period. In the same year he produced two further paintings of alchemists. A very similar but much smaller version now in the collection of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (Fig. 3) merits particular mention. There are a number of minor differences in terms of detail. It has only two staffage figures and there is a leaded window at the left, rather than an arched workshop entrance with a landscape view. Wouter Kloek sees the Frankfurt painting as preliminary to the present work.With a provenance19 reaching back into the eighteenth century, the present painting not only occupies a key place in Jan Steen’s oeuvre, but it is also one of the last remaining depictions of an alchemist by Steen in private hands.


We are grateful to Wouter Kloek, Emeritus Head Curator Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, for endorsing the attribution to Jan Steen after inspecting the painting.



1 See Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke (...), Esslingen 1907, no. 229/231.

2 A landscape and history painter, Sir Francis Bourgeois was court painter to King George III (1738-1820). He also became an art dealer and collector in association with Margaret and Noel Desenfans. He was co-founder of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

3 Samuel Jones-Loyd was a banker and politician who assembled a highly significant collection of paintings. He was one of the partners in the consortium which in 1846 acquired the collection of Dutch and Flemish pictures owned by the late Baron Johan Gijsbert Verstolk van Soelen (1776-1845).

4 On Lady Wantage’s death in 1920, the collections were divided. The London collection, housed at Carlton Gardens, was inherited by her late husband’s kinsman the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, whereas the collections in the family’s country houses were inherited by A. Thomas Loyd.

5 In February 1927, Jacques Goudstikker moved to a larger gallery at Herengracht 458. It is feasible that this was the first painting Goudstikker handled in his new premises, as the label on the stretcher also gives the Herengracht address. If this is the case, Goudstikker probably bought the painting directly from the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres after seeing it at the Leiden exhibition in 1926.

6 Friso Lammertse of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen has identified the old exhibition label on the stretcher as the label of a Boijmans Van Beuningen exhibition. It is unclear when the exhibition took place. The label states that by the time of the exhibition the painting was in the possession of a Mr. Schuddebeurs in Amsterdam.

7 H. C. W. Tietje, like Wolf, was a wealthy industrialist and art lover. Wolf and Tietje were mutually involved in various business transactions.

8 Valued by D. Hannema at 70,000 florins on 15 September 1939.

9 From 1937, the family resided on the Groot Haesebroek country estate in Wassenaar. Daniel Wolf was in France at the time of the German invasion. He was unable to return to the Netherlands but managed to escape to England. Later in the war, he moved to the United States and died in New York in 1943. Groot Haesebroek was seized shortly after the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, and subsequently served as a residence for a high-ranking Nazi official.

10 A peculiar irony of the story: the Nazis were also interested in manufacturing gold. Heinrich Himmler let himself be taken in by his personal alchemist Karl Malchus in 1937. See Helmut Werner, Hitlers Alchemisten: die geheimen Versuche zur Goldherstellung im KZ Dachau, Königswinter 2016.

11 See the recommendation regarding Wolf, dated 9 November 2009 issued by the Advisory Committee on the Assessment of Restitution Applications, case number RC 1.101, and the receipt from the Stichting Nederlands Kunstbezit (SNK), dated 31 March 1948.

12 ESHO is thought to mean ‘Ex Hohenheim’; see A.A.A.M. Brinkman, De alchemist in de prentkunst, Amsterdam 1982, p. 48.

13 M. Hébert, E. Pognon, Y. Bruand and Y. Sjöberg, ‘GODEFROY (FRANçOIS)’, in Inventaire du fonds français, graveurs du XVIIIe siècle, (…), tome X: Gaugain-Gravelot, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris 1968, p. 365, no. 2. The British Museum also holds an impression of the print (inv. 1861.1109.348).


Aux larme de ta femme insensible butor
Crois-tu de ses bijoux sortir de l’or?
Ce Métal précieux est produit par la Terre
Et jamais le creuset n’en peut être le Père.
De ces vils Imposteurs évite les appas
Ils promettent beaucoup, mais ils ne tiendront pas.

15 Inscribed in the plate JSteen Pin.xt and Gravé par F. Godefroy under the direction of [J.-F.] Le Bas, with the address. The lower margin with engraved title and six lines of French verse in two columns: Aux larmes de ta femme (…) mais ils ne tiendront pas.

16 Jan Steen: Painter and Storyteller, exhib. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art, 28 April-1 August 1996; Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, 21 September 1996–12 January 1997, p. 81.

17 Richard Verstegen, Honderdt Geestige Caracteren, ofte Uitbeeldingen van Honderdt Verscheidene Personen, 4th edn., Amsterdam 1735, p. 127.

18 Verstegen, op. cit., pp. 128­9.

19 Charles Sebag-Montefiore researched the English provenance of the painting.

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