How to avoid a bad buy and angry patrons: a recipe for pigment testing

As we have seen in other blog posts before, recipes for counterfeits, imitations, and ersatz products were fairly common in the early modern period. On the other hand, there were recipes to detect the results of such deceit, such as this recipe to determine whether wine had been sweetened with lead or not. This testing of products was not only relevant for consumers and apothecaries, but also for artists, as appears from an eighteenth-century artist’s manuscript I have been studying recently.

Mattheus Verheyden, portrait of Otto Frederick Houttuyn. Was the robe painted with a cochineal-based red?
Mattheus Verheyden, portrait of Otto Frederick Houttuyn. Was the robe painted with a cochineal-based red?

Mattheus Verheyden or Verheijden (1700-1776) was a successful Dutch portrait painter. The son of the painter Franck Pietersz Verheyden was orphaned at an early age, but thanks to his late mother’s fortune he received training as an artist and soon he became a sought-after painter in the upper classes, and made many portraits of regents, clergymen and royals. In the Rijksmuseum Research Library, a manuscript ‘art and recipe book’ attributed to him is kept (call number 319H17). Written in a neat hand in an unruled notebook meant for music notation, Verheyden recorded almost two hundred pages of recipes and instructions for artists. On the title page he wrote: “Art and Recipe book, for painters and etchers &c., brought together over time and with diligence, by M.V.H.” Some of the instructions come from well-known artists handbooks of the time, while the origin of others is not entirely clear.

From the order of the contents of the book, it becomes clear that the quality of his materials was very important for Verheyden. The first ten pages are devoted to various recipes for making ultramarine paint based on lapis lazuli. Yet they are followed by a recipe that does not describe how to make a paint, but how to test the quality of pigments. It reads:

Verheyden's pigment test. Source: Rijksmuseum Research Library, call number 319H17.
Verheyden’s pigment test. Source: Rijksmuseum Research Library, call number 319H17.

Test, to discover whether the lacquer one uses to paint is good &c. If the lacquer is made of cochineal, it never changes. And if it is made of Brazil wood, &c., it will becomes an orange colour over time. To discover this, take a small grain of lacquer, and rub it with your nail on a piece of white paper, and put a drop of lemon juice on it. Rub it through the lacquer with your finger. If the lacquer remains unchanged, it is good, and made of cochineal. But if it turns an orange colour, it is unstable, and made of Fernambuk, or Brazil wood, and will evaporate over time, and is no good.

Cochineal in crude and powdered form
Cochineal in crude and powdered form
Powdered brazil wood extract. It is not difficult to imagine the confusion.
Powdered brazil wood extract. It is not difficult to imagine the confusion.

Red pigment made of brazil wood was – and is – much cheaper than that made of cochineal. Even today, the latter is four to thirteen times more expensive than the former – crude cochineal sells at about ten euros for 25 grams, and carmine red (purified cochineal) costs about thirty euros per 25 grams, while the same amount of brazil wood pigment costs only about 2.25 euros. The relative instability of brazil wood as a red pigment had been known for centuries, but this recipe gave a quick and relatively easy way to determine whether what was on offer was cochineal or brazil wood.

For an artists like Verheyden, whose reputation depended partly on the quality of the source materials he used for his paints, this was understandably very important. Commercial, ready-to-use paints only became available in the nineteenth century. Although Verheyden’s recipe book never appeared in print as far as we know, it is reasonable to assume that the kind of testing and quality-control described in this recipe was a desirable commodity for painters and other artists who worked with pigments that they bought from apothecaries, herbalists, chemists, or traveling salesmen.

Searching for Recipes: A Glimpse of Early Modern Upper Class Life

By Marieke Hendriksen

On this blog we tend to hear a lot about English household manuscript recipes but lively traditions existed elsewhere, as Sietske Fransen and Saskia Klerk also show in their series on a Dutch manuscript of recipesIn my own search for eighteenth-century Dutch medical and chemical recipes, I often come across manuscript recipe books that lack a detailed catalogue description, so I have to check them page-by-page to see if there is anything relevant for my current research.

Often these recipe books have little to do with medicine or chemistry, or they contain only a limited number of medical home remedies. Yet this does not make these books any less interesting to researchers. This week, when I opened a manuscript at Museum Boerhaave (inventory number BOERH a 176) which was marked in the catalogue as ‘medicine book and recipes, before 1860’, I caught a fascinating glimpse of early modern upper class life.

Kitchen interior, oil on canvas, Dutch, anonymous, second half of 17th C.
Kitchen interior, oil on canvas, Dutch, anonymous, second half of 17th C. Courtesy of RKD images.

Judging by the spelling and state of the paper, my guess is that this manuscript is quite a bit older than ‘before 1860’, it dates probably from the eighteenth or maybe even the seventeenth century. This is supported by the fact that underneath one of the recipes someone has noted in a different hand ‘1721: selfs geprobeerd’ (‘tried myself’). The cover and a number of pages are missing, but it contains a wealth of recipes for food, human and veterinary medicine, household chores, and home decorations. As many of the cookery recipes list expensive ingredients spices and lemons, and as the book also contains recipes for gilding, ink, paints, wax fruit, and a special recipe for nightingale food, it seems most likely that the recipes were collected in an upper class household, like that of an aristocratic or well-off merchant family.

Unfortunately the manuscript is anonymous, and the few names that are mentioned give little direction either. The only names mentioned are a certain mister Plaatman as the source of a recipe against kidney stones, and with a recipe for a potion, the author has noted ‘bij Susanna ghebruijckt in haer siekte’ (‘used with Susanna in her illness’). Given the distinct upper class feel of the recipes, and that fact that they are written in high Dutch in seventeenth and/or eighteenth century, the first Susanna that springs to mind is Susanna Huygens (1637-1725), daughter of Constantijn. Of course there must have been more women named Susanna, but the population of the United Provinces around 1800 was small – roughly 2 million people – and the upper class thus too, so it would be interesting to see if additional research can confirm this surmise.

Pieter Holsteyn I, Nightingale, crayon and gouache on paper, ca. 1656-1667.
Pieter Holsteyn I, Nightingale, crayon and gouache on paper, ca. 1656-1667.  Courtesy of RKD Images.

Whether this recipe book was owned by the Huygens family or another upper class Dutch family, it gives a fascinating insight in daily life. And for those of you wanting to take up a nice early modern hobby over the holidays, like keeping a nightingale as a pet, here is the recipe for nightingale’s food: ‘Mix finely cut lamb’s heart, hemp seed, parsley, rusk, egg yolk and sweet almonds. Can be fed every two hours.’

Van Helmont on the Plague, Again!

By Sietske Fransen, with Saskia Klerk

A few weeks ago Saskia Klerk introduced the Leiden manuscript BPL 3603 to the readers of this blog. This recently acquired manuscript has a pencil-written remark on the flyleaf by a modern cataloguer with the inscription ‘Van Helmond’s Recepten’.  We can safely assume that this refers to the seventeenth-century physician Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644) and/or his son Franciscus Mercurius (1614-1698).

Father and Son van Helmont, frontispiece in Dageraed, Amsterdam 1659.
Father and Son van Helmont, frontispiece in Dageraed, Amsterdam 1659.

When Saskia told me about it for the first time, I was very curious to learn more. As there is very little known about the reception of Jan Baptista van Helmont’s Dutch work Dageraed (‘Daybreak’, Amsterdam 1659), this recipe book in Dutch might well shed more light on this part of the Helmontian story. And secondly, I had the faint hope that Saskia might have found some of the now lost manuscripts by Van Helmont himself. [1] Unfortunately the latter is not the case, but I am very sure that the manuscript will tell us more about the reception of Van Helmont’s Dageraed, as well as about medical practices in the Low Countries in general.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, fol. 103 (selection)
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 103 (selection)

In two previous blog posts (see here and here) I wrote about Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague and his recipes for sweat potions. These recipes were good examples to show the differences in translation practices between the ingredients (heavily based on Latin terminology) and the performative parts of the recipes (firmly grounded in the vernacular tradition). Not unsurprisingly – since these are the only recipes in Van Helmont’s texts that were published as visually recognisable recipes (with lists of ingredients, followed by the actions)  – these recipes are copied into BPL 3603. The picture here shows how the compiler of the manuscript ordered the ingredients in such a way that we find the Latin names in the left column and the Dutch equivalences on the right. All terms and additions are taken verbatim from Van Helmont’s Dageraed, which implies that the compiler had seen a copy of this book. At this point it is unclear to us whether this Dutch recipe collector was a physician, or an apothecary, or whether BPL 3606 was a household book, or perhaps it was a combination of all of this. We hope to find out more in the future.

The compiler did not only copy the recipe, but also several other passages from the plague treatise. Van Helmont’s treatise on the plague forms the second part of the Dageraed. The first part of the book gives an overview of his medical philosophy, from the influence of the heavenly bodies to his theory of disease, whereas the second part concentrates on one disease (the plague) and its history, causes, and treatments. The compiler of BPL 3603 seems especially interested in copying passages in which Van Helmont displays his experience. The compiler quotes Van Helmont, for example, as a proof for his understanding that only sulphur (‘swavel’) can protect one from the plague. Van Helmont tells of the example of a regiment of soldiers which he observed nearby Sas van Gent. The regiment consisting of Neapolitans, as well as Walloons and Germans died almost entirely from the plague, apart from the Germans. According to van Helmont, the Germans had used gun powder (‘bospoeder’) on their clothes to protect themselves from lice. Subsequently, very few of them died, which Van Helmont saw as a result of the qualities of sulphur.

University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p, 104: the author quotes Van Helmont.
University Library Leiden, MS BPL 3603, p. 104: the author quotes Van Helmont.

The compiler uses the extracts from the Dageraed here to prove the effectiveness of sulphur as a treatment. This resonates with  extracts and quotes of Van Helmont that the compiler adds two pages later. Also here the main concern seems proof for the usefulness and effectiveness of the discussed drugs: ‘Van Helmont says he has seen it been used effectively’, ‘Van Helmont says that no one will die from using these drugs’, etc. Van Helmont’s comments and the way the compiler is quoting and naming Van Helmont make clear that Van Helmont is used as an authority. The compiler seems to be very interested in the practical applications of the drugs, much in contrast to Van Helmont, who always embeds his practices into a theoretical framework. This might point to the motifs of collecting for the compiler.    

In the next blog post Saskia will start to look into the references to Johan van Beverwijck in the BPL 3603. Will she find a similar interest in proof and personal experience by the compiler when quoting Van Beverwijck or does his interest lie somewhere else?

[1] For a brief account on the lost Helmontian manuscripts, see Antonio Clericuzio, ‘From van Helmont to Boyle. A Study of the Transmission of Helmontian Chemical and Medical Theories in Seventeenth-Century England’, The British Journal for the History of Science 26, p. 311-12.