Art at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

The fact that Philadelphia affords the curious visitor with a keen interest in history an abundance of riches is no surprise. Aside from all the historical buildings associated with the birth of the American state (the expansive network of buildings that compose the Independence National Historical Park), there are countless museums of every kind. From  museums that highlight local history (such as the Philadelphia History Museum) to those that focus on the certain ethnic and national groups and their place in American history (the National Museum of American Jewish History, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the American Swedish Historical Museum), Philly seems to have it all. I don’t want to seem like a cheerleader here, but I was pretty impressed (if not somewhat overwhelmed) by the options during my three months there.

Historians of science will take a special liking to Philadelphia since it is home to the American Philosophical Society, America’s best-known 18th century (natural) philosophical organization, as well as a number of science-related museums and collections (the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, the Wagner Free Institute of Science, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and, of course, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where I spent most of my time). The attentive traveler, rambling around town, will notice a few other artifacts with relevance to the history of science, such as the “Kopernik” sculpture celebrating the astronomical achievements of Nicolaus Copernicus or the painting of Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, complete with helpful putti (a visual trope of Early Modern art, especially that relating to natural philosophical experiments).

Kopernik, symbolizing the astronomical achievements of everyone’s favourite Roman Catholic canon, Nicolaus Copernicus.

Instead of discussing tons of different things here, I decided to take a moment and take a moment to mention something of a hidden gem: the art in the Chemical Heritage Foundation. I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader for the CHF, but it really does have some great art, and seeing as most visitors to Philadelphia may not see it, it’s worth taking a moment to mention.

Philadelphia is a town chock full of art, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art to its Mural Arts Program. Pop inside a building such as the Curtis Building and what you find (in this case a giant, incredible mural) may surprise you. In this respect the CHF is no exception, and its walls contain more art than this post can adequately describe.

First of all, everyone with an interest in science (and its history) should check out the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The exhibits are highly aesthetic, well-curated, and should interest even those visitors with at most a peripheral interest in chemistry. Their rotating exhibition space is relatively small but well done. If you go now you can see The Alchemical Quest, an exhibit that not only contains important historical alchemical manuscripts, but also an interactive “book” that helps guide you through the maze that is alchemical iconography.

“Trouble comes to the alchemist” (Dutch, 17th C). Early Modern comedy gold!

However, aside from the museum, the CHF is also home to a great collection of art. You can catch a bit of this in their museum, where you can see a portrait of Robert Boyle. Should you venture up to the fourth floor, you can see a collection of early modern art that includes numerous depictions of alchemists, iatrochemists, pharmacists and so on in a small but dense gallery titled “Transmutations: Alchemy in Art“. You can see some (but not all) of these images at the CHF’s flickr site.

This contains some great works and provides an insightful glimpse into how artists (and, one assumes, the broader public) understood alchemists and chemists. You’ll be surprised how many paintings were taken of an iatrochemical sage (or fool) performing a uroscopy – not an act I expected to see immortalized on canvas. In this image to the left you can see such a physician (incorrectly titled an “alchemist” performing a uroscopy while having a piss-pot emptied on his head.

While some works aim to accurately portray the alchemical workshop in a positive or value-neutral manner, others portrayed alchemists (or more generally, chemically-oriented natural philosophers), as eternal failures. These alchemists, such as those portrayed by Mattheus von Helmont (1623-79) struggle endlessly with ancient texts and broken pots, their commitment to erudition and the pursuit of arcane knowledge matched only by the ultimate futility of their enterprise.

“The Alchemist”, Mattheus von Helmont (17th century). Curiously, the alchemist’s laboratory looks uncannily similar to the offices of some professors I know.

A view from one of the CHF’s elevators, a portrait of King Charles II. Now that’s just showing off.

There are other paintings scattered around the CHF. For example, the elevator up to the fifth floor opens up to a giant portrait of King Charles II, known to historians of science for his connection to the Royal Society (which was in fact Royal in name only – Charles II didn’t think very highly of Royal Society). Why is this portrait there? I’m not sure. Maybe it has something to do with Charles having granted William Penn a charter to found Pennsylvania.

The art at the CHF isn’t limited to painting (I won’t even begin to mention the art housed in their library). There’s also a political cartoon taking aim at the anti-establishment opinions of chemist Joseph Priestly, who was known for his heterodox political and religious views. This cartoon shows Priestley calling for the King’s head on a platter among a shady cabal of known anti-Royalist agitators on the eve of the French Revolution. In the background a picture of St. Paul’s Cathedral hangs, despairingly titled “A Pig’s Stye” Priestly was run out of England on account of his views and later settled in the United States.

A Birmingham Toast (1791), portraying Joseph Priestley as a godless, regicidal maniac. Not the most helpful cartoon ever drawn.

Finally, one of my favourite parts of the CHF are their frosted walls of chemical diagrams that line the second floor corridors. Titled “Visualizing the Invisible“, these walls display a variety of chemical diagrams, several of which I have written about in my research. I did a short video piece for the CHF discussing these walls, so I’ll discuss them further when that video comes out.

You should all definitely check out all of this art at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which sits nicely on Chestnut St., just to the East of the Liberty Bell. However, you’ll need to contact the CHF ahead of time to do so. Fortunately, admission is free, but I recommend dropping some change in the jar (or, alternatively, buying a local CHF fellow a cheesesteak, preferably from one of the stalls around the corner).

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