Volume 10, Number 2, May 1988, p.8

Zora's Column: Coincidence in Delft: Aesthetic Alchemy

by Peter Mendez

It's appropriate, in the tenor of the times, to explore mystical ideas and their validity. My friend Peter Mendez, who teaches in the art department at Cal State University at Long Beach, for many years has been investigating Vermeer and his contemporaries'' ideas concerning both the abstract and the real materials they studied and used. I asked him to contribute to this column in the hope that it piques your imaginations as much as it has mine.

Coincidence in Delft: Aesthetic Alchemy

Seventeenth-century alchemy certainly influenced great philosophers, scientists, medical practitioners, and perhaps, also, a great painter like Jan Vermeer of Delft (1632-1675).

Alchemy may be viewed as the ancients' way of appreciating nature as an integrated series of systems; to understand her ways allowed them the possible cultivation of her various processes. Thus, according to Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, alchemy is a "medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy whose great objects were to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life" as well as "The act or process of transforming something common into something precious".

Correspondence between the microcosm and macrocosm was at that time a fundamental concept; therefore less distinction was made between what we now consider diverse aspects of intellectual life. Chemistry, biology, philosophy, medicine, mathematics, music, anatomy, physics, and theology were wrapped up into one spiritual amalgam. For instance, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), physicist and chemist, brought Sir Isaac Newton's attention to alchemy. Boyle also is known to have corresponded with at least two citizens of Delft, the anatomist Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673) and Antony Van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). The former introduced Boyle to the latter.

Since both de Graaf and Leeuwenhoek shared their work and are credited with the discovery of procreative cells of humans, it seems likely that they were aware of alchemical concerns and descriptions of the various states of matter and specifically of the sources of life. We know Leeuwenhoek spent an enormous amount of time examining the relative pure states of snow water, rain water and material contributors to the beginnings of life. Their sources are consistent with alchemical beliefs. In order to learn the craft of lens grinding and to aid in building the finest microscopes, he had already "visited alchemists and apothecaries and put his nose into their secret ways of grinding metals from ores".

Although Leeuwenhoek's father-in-law was a painter, he was in search of a draftsman. He employed the aid of artists to convert his crude observational sketches into usable illustrations for the Royal Society. The artists remain unknown but Dobell, the biographer of Leeuwenhoek, mentions Vermeer as indeed an eligible candidate. Among Leeuwenhoek's other discoveries were the rods and cones of the retina.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who we remember as the father of classical physics and optics, was an alchemist. His room at Cambridge was fitted with "a little laboratory where he tried various experiments on transmutation". Earlier in his career he had tried his hand at grinding pigments and painting, and had been stimulated by Boyle's work on color. He is perhaps best known for his great discovery of universal gravity and that white light contains all the prismatic hues.

Coincidental as it may have been, Newton, Leeuwenhoek, and Vermeer were involved in such overlapping interests as optics, astronomy, music, color, theology, art, philosophy, and mathematics (measurement). We may never know if Vermeer actually used the camera obscura as has been speculated; however, if he did, then all three of these observers viewed their worlds through ground and polished lenses. Like an alchemist, Vermeer used base metals to produce his colors. Lead, when heated and treated with tin, yielded the bright color of gold (lead-tin yellow). Newton's alchemical notes show that he used lead and tin most often, but that he preferred antimony (as in Naples yellow light).

The point here is not to portray Vermeer busying himself creating fool's gold, but rather to include alchemy as an eligible influence on the conceptual arrangement of pigments and the ordering of his painting procedures. Since alchemy provided the tradition for the preparation of metals, ores, medical prescriptions, etc., its relationship to pigments could also prove to be an integral part of the aesthetic philosophy of the outstanding painter from Delft.

Peter Mendez, copyright 1988
P.O. Box 1941
San Pedro, CA 90731

Peter is preparing a video tape presenting information he has either developed or gathered concerning Vermeer's methods and materials. I'm sure that he would be open to questions, discussion or dialogue that interested people may have to offer...Zora

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