Secret Histories | Rediscovering “The Art of Alchemy”

Artwork: Alchemical Equipment, ca. 1700. From “Traité de Chymie,” [Treatise on Chemistry] (France, ca. 1700), pp. 10–11.

Alchemy. The word evokes a combination of mystic powers and ego-fueled dreams, of the human desire to transform Nature into Heaven. Long shrouded in secrecy, alchemy was once considered the highest of arts, taking the form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced during the Middle Ages and Renaissance that sought to transmute a common substance, usually of little value into the greatest possible matter, whether gold or an elixir of life.

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The Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, both in Los Angeles, have dug deep into their archives to explore this phenomenon for The Art of Alchemy, a new exhibition showcasing more than 100 objects dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 20th century, currently on view through February 12, 2017. The objects selected, including manuscripts and rare books, paintings, prints, sculpture, and other works of art from Europe and Asia, straddle the realms of science and natural philosophy in search of solutions to a basic human desire to manifest the divine in material form.

Art as the Mirror of All Nature, Matthaus Merian the Elder, 1617. From Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi majoris scilicet et minoris . . . historia, [The History of both the Greater and, Naturally, the Lesser Cosmos] (Oppenheim, 1617–1621), vol. 1, pl. after p. 3. 1378-183Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute observes, “Alchemy is a fascinating subject that cuts across continents and epochs. This exhibition reflects the human ambition to explore and understand the wonders, the materiality, and the laws of nature since the earliest times. Imagination, curiosity, scholarship, enchantment, science, philosophy, and chemistry amalgamate in the artistic processes of Alchemy.”

The Art of Alchemy is presented in three parts: “Alchemical Creation,” “Alchemy and Creativity,” and “Alchemical Culture”. “Alchemical Creation” brings us to the roots of the practice in Greco-Egyptian antiquity, which flourished in the ancient city of Alexandria. At the same time, the flow of materials and technologies between the ancient Mediterranean, Middle East, India, and China along the Silk Routes of Eurasia spread these ideas widely, piquing international interest in the phenomenon.

Alchemists Revealing Secrets from the Book of Seven Seals, The Ripley Scroll (detail), ca. 1700. 950053

“Alchemy and Creation” explores alchemical ideas about the nature of creation itself, which was the secret alchemists worked to unlock in order to harness the powers of nature for their own imaginative ends. The centerpiece of this section is the twenty-foot long Ripley Scroll, handpainted by eighteenth-century Catholic clergyman and poet George Ripley, depicting the operations of alchemy and the creation of the fabled “philosophers’ stone.”

Alchemical techniques for the synthetic production of color became an industrial mainstay in medieval and renaissance Europe, the most important of which was mercury sulfide: vermilion red— often referred to by alchemical texts as the philosophers’ stone itself. Alchemists experimented with the production all the colors of the rainbow, as well as glassmaking, inks, dyes, oil paints, ceramic glazes, and metallurgical techniques, devising psychedelic symbolic imagery for the expression of science through art.

The Entire Earthly, Natural, and Dark Man, 1723. From Johann Georg Gichtel, Theosophia Practica [Practical Theosophy] (Leiden, 1723), pl. before p. 25. 2611-134

By the Renaissance, diaries with scribbled notes and diagrams became commonplace, as did a publishing market for “secret” recipe books for both art and medicine catering to not just artists but also female heads of household, such as the “Secrets” of the Venetian woman Isabella Cortese, published in 1565. Also on view are the notebooks of the artists Hans Hanberg and Francesco Boccaccino, containing designs for furnaces, laboratory notes, and even a few accidental stains and singes.

“Alchemical Culture” explores the later developments of the practice as the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment. Alchemists’ maintained expertise in the management of mines and the other material resources that attracted rulers interested in building their empires through by taking lands outside of Europe for themselves. As they colonized the planet, they bought alchemy into the Industrial Age. For example, the Bayer pharmaceutical company developed a rainbow of aniline coal tar dyes from petroleum waste, while also working on a new painkiller that would soon be patented as “heroin.”

Liquid Crystal Souls, Ernst Haeckel, 1917. From Ernst Haeckel, Kristallseelen [Crystal Souls] (Leipzig, 1917), frontispiece. Private collection, Los Angeles

Taken as a whole, The Art of Alchemy traces the path of a practice that continues to imbue our lives with the belief that Wo/Man can transmute the properties Nature to create anything it would like, despite the very real cost of trying to play God. As a collection of art, it is charming in its elegant grandiosity; a collection of history, it is haunting in its implications about the power of illusions to drive results.

All artwork: Courtesy of The Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, both in Los Angeles.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.

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