Electricity: condenser jars, an electro-static generator, and a vase with flowers. Gouache painting.
- Lelong, Paul, active approximately 1820
About this work
The painter of the present picture, whoever he or she was, was probably working in the 19th century, but has inherited several features of the 17th-century monochrome masters, such as Pieter Claesz of Haarlem (1597-1660): such features include the crack in the stone ledge, which serves both as a sign of transience and a test of verisimilitude. But instead of flowers, lemons, butterflies and dewdrops, the painter has introduced a different mystery of the Creation: electricity. On the right is a hand-powered electrostatic generator which sends electricity to a Leyden jar in the foreground and sets off the ringing of "Franklin bells" in the red and blue jar, as the two hanging clappers are alternately attracted and repelled between the three inverted cups The whirr of the glass wheel, the crackling of sparks and the ringing of the bells would provide a vivid auditory experience when all is in motion. But in the painting, mankind has ceased its experiments, the wheel is stilled and everything is at peace, leaving the artist, and now the viewer (us), to contemplate the silent instruments. There is the blue-grey of the electrostatic wheel and rod, the red painted insulators, the yellow-golden colour of the brass conductors, and the gleaming real gold of the gold foil sealed inside the Leyden jar. A gilt chain trails out of the bottom of the picture towards the black and gold frame: by its juxtaposition with the non-conducting ledge, it earths the jar and thus enables it to store the invisible electric fluid (electrons were not discovered until the 1890s). The bulbous nodes which appear the end of almost every conductor in the picture prevent the waste of hard-earned electricity in corona discharges: there are no fewer than twenty of them in this small painting. On the far left, the Abbé Nollet's glass electric egg has lost its violet glow and returned to its colourless state On the left we see a different kind of mystery. Two roses and a spray of leaves are displayed inside a flower-vase. They illustrate the beauty of nature, while they also, like the crack in the ledge, provide continuity with famous earlier Dutch flower painters such as Rachel Ruysch and Jan van Huysum. But the vase itself also tells us something about the world. It is made in part of blue glass engraved with a Chinese or Japanese lady crossing a bridge, carrying a parasol. Is it from China or Japan? Is it a piece of German or Central European craftsmanship in an oriental style? Or chinoiserie jasperware? Whatever its origin, it is fitted with twisted ormolu handles and gilded rims that suit the delicacy of the carving and sparkle as brightly as the electric conductors. Nature has its marvels, but the painting also shows the ability of mankind to travel the globe and to construct new artefacts with amazing skill. In any other still-life painting, it would seem bizarre to place a vase of roses on a "tabouret électrique" or insulating stool. But that happens here
1 painting : gouache ; image 16.2 x 21.6 cm
Exhibited in "Electricity: The spark of life" at Wellcome Collection, 23 February – 25 June 2017, and Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands, 25 July 2017 – 7 January 2018 UkLW
Wellcome Library no. 47533i
By, or in the style of, Paul Lelong (active ca. 1820)
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