Folly shades off into stupidity, which, when taken to extreme, ultimately reduces the alchemist to an ape. Two examples are given here: a print from around 1580 and a painting from the mid-nineteenth century.
The similarity of the first of these images with the famous depiction of the family of alchemists by Pieter Breugel (1558) is evident: in both images, most notably, the vignette in the upper right shows the whole family, rendered destitute by the fruitless quest for alchemical gold, headed for the poorhouse. Brinkman’s comparison nevertheless concludes that van der Borcht’s image is not as bitterly condemnatory as Bruegel’s.
For one thing, this image is part of a well-established artistic genre, the ‘singerie’, in which monkeys are depicted ‘aping’ all kinds of human behaviour. Pieter van der Borcht was one of the chief exponents of the genre, and other prints in this series satirise quack doctors as well as a range of perfectly ordinary human activities, including a barbershop, a feast in a tavern, and even a nursery. Some of the symbolism of the earlier image is also lacking here, such as the alchemist throwing his last coin into his experimenting apparatus.
The second example is much later: the artist, Edmund Bristow (1787-1876), also produced other examples of the singerie genre, depicting monkeys in a tavern and at the phlebotomist.
References. A. Brinkman, De alchemist in de prentkunst (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1982), pp. 41-43.
Commentary. Howard Hotson (April 2019)