As I start to conclude 2015’s Art for the Month of June, I realize that I’ve paid significantly less attention to the genre of still-life as I did with last year’s series. While Elihu Vedder’s< i>Dead Alchemist</i> would technically be regarded an interior scene, it contains several fantastic still-lifes which serve to fulfill this odd personal quota. The table top in the upper-left, ink and pen found down on the floor, and the assemblage of tools around the opening of the furnace, could all—I believe—stand alone as their still individual pieces, and I’ve cropped them as such in the detail images below. More importantly, the careful attention to placement of each variable provides clues about our alchemist friend and what might’ve transpired before his departure.
Perhaps my favorite still-life here is the table top scene in the upper left, which includes a wonderful a rendering of the bottle opposite our poor subject’s head. I love the observation of light reflecting through the various vials and tubes, as well as the varying intensities of shadow each item casts upon the wall behind. Other details I admire are the little stones found at the base of the metal mixing bowl and what appears to be a decorative vase hidden in the background behind the books Along with the used cloth at the edge of the table, all of these elements feel very natural and effectively represent a busy workstation. I’m also intrigued with the tiny piece of paper which seems to contain a wax stamp, though its meaning it a total mystery to me.
As for the book on the floor, this small scene provides a simple yet effective insight into our alchemist’s mindset, communicating that he preferred to work without distraction and with only the necessary tools at hand to record his thoughts. And obviously his choice to situate himself on the floor, on what appears to be a mattress, would strike most viewers as unorthodox, but nevertheless, citing the feather pin resting his grip, we are left to conclude that he passed away while deep in contemplation.
There’s no evidence here to indicate that our friend had any life beyond his alchemy pursuits—not even pictures that might signify friends or family. From what we see here, he was simply a lonely man absorbed in his work. However foolish his end goal, you have to admire that kind of dedication.
Going back to my observation of the still-lifes, the tools found around the furnace provide further intrigue to this already mysterious scene. Same the tabletop above, it’s a very natural portrayal of a working environment, as if taken from first-hand observation. Most importantly, I find myself wondering about that glass bottle and what role might’ve played here. Did it perhaps contain a potion ingested by our friend? Why is it located down by the furnace and not over by the book? Perhaps the open furnace might even represent the passing away of our subject. On that note, what are we to make of the winged figures represented within the etching of the table, located at either side of the departed alchemist? As with Arnold Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead: Third Version, which I covered earlier this month, there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
Furthermore, why is his face shown turned opposite the direction of the light> Some might say this indicates the wrongfulness of his scientific pursuits. Many Flemish paintings from the 1700s depict the alchemist as a figure of ridicule—usually a lonely hermit meddling in God’s work. However, even though Vedder himself produced much religious imagery, his paintings also exhibit a certain mysticism which leads me to believe his viewpoint on our alchemist might not have been of scrutiny. Perhaps that open furnace and the light gently setting down on the scene was meant to imply that his alchemist’s experiment, whatever it might’ve been, was a success, even if that meant departing this worldly plane.