Item #6098 [The Felix Meritis Society: The Physics Hall]. ELECTRICITY, Reinier VINKELES.
[Amsterdam, c. 1801].

[The Felix Meritis Society: The Physics Hall].

Etching and engraving on off-white laid paper. Early proof before lettering. Sheet size: 46 × 58.5 cm (18.11 inches × 23 inches); image size: 37 × 51 cm (14.5 × 20 inches); plate size: 44 × 55 cm (17.3 × 21.6 inches).

This fascinating print depicts a demonstration of static electricity to the Society Felix Meritis (Amsterdam) on a twin-plate machine, built especially for the Society by the renowned instrument maker John Cuthbertson. The double plate was Cuthbertson’s modification of an earlier design with a globe and cylinder generators. The machines built by him were considered “the largest and most powerful electrical machines the world had seen at the time” (Roberts, p. 695). According to Michel, "it was with this machine that the electrolysis of water was first tried successfully in 1799" (Michel, p. 200, fig. 102).

The figure standing behind a table, with his back to us, pointing to an electrical current, is often misidentified as the Dutch scientist Jan Hendrik van Swinden (1746-1823), but is most probably Henricus Aenea, the physics lecturer at the Felix Meritis Society from 1778-1795; he was also the designer of the large Argand lamp above the demonstration table (Zuidervaart, Van Gent, p. 39). The twin-plate machine generating the electricity is operated by Cornelis Wieckera. Among other people depicted in the print, Dr. Zuidervaart tentatively identifies banker Jan Ananias Willink (1751-1827), one of the Society’s distinguished members, and Hendrik de Hartog (1751-1838), the official lecturer on Mathematics.

The print is often called "the most famous depiction" of lectures, regularly organized by the Society (Roberts, pp. 694-695). Established in 1777, Felix Meritis ("Happiness through Merit") was a private organization, aimed at promoting music, drawing, physics, commerce, and literature. In 1788, the Society commissioned its own building in Amsterdam: "There was a large, semi-circular hall for lectures and experiments, a cabinet where the instruments were stored, an outdoor gallery for hydrostatic experiments and measurements of electricity, a chemical laboratory, and, on the roof, an observatory. The building was pierced by a 34-meter hole, from roof to cellar, for performing experiments with falling bodies. All in all, the building of Felix Meritis was better equipped than many a university" (Van Berkel, Van Helden, Palm, pp. 87-88). According to the Society's rules, new members had to donate a scientific instrument or the means to procure one as part of their initiation. As a result of it, the Society quickly became outfitted with all the latest technology.

The demonstration took place amidst a booming interest in electrical experiments in The Netherlands. Around the same time, another important Dutch scientist, Martinus Van Marum (1750-1837) published his copiously illustrated Beschryving eener ongemeen groote electrizeer-machine (1785-95), describing a "Large Electrostatic Generator," a room-sized device, which Van Marum commissioned Cuthbertson to build for Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem. It was “the largest electrostatic machine ever built” until the rise of modern Van de Graf generators (Dibner (2), p. 295).

The event was originally captured by Jacques Kuyper (1761-1808) and Pieter Pietersz Barbiers I (1749-1842) in their 1794 drawing "Zaal der Natuurkunde in het gebouw der Maatschappyë Felix Meritis binnen Amsterdam = Salle de Phijsique dans l’Edifiçe de la société Felix Meritis a Amsterdam"[Hall of Physics in the Building of the Felix Meritis Society in Amsterdam]. Reinier Vinkeles (1741-1816) later reworked the drawing into this engraving. Vinkeles produced three other engravings of the Felix Meritis Society, which depicted the music hall, the drawing room, and "the audience in the building of the Felix Meritis Society." In the U.S., only two institutions appear to have the complete set of four prints: Princeton and the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX).

Our copy appears to be of the same state as the print owned by Harvard.

With thanks to Dr. Huib Zuidervaart for his kind help in identifying some of the individuals in this print.

*Harvard Art Museums 2019.260; LeBlanc 45; Michel, Scientific Instruments in Art and History (1967), p. 200, fig. 102; Roberts, "Science Becomes Electric: Dutch Interaction with the Electrical Machine during the Eighteenth Century," Isis 90/4 (Dec. 1999): 680-714; Van Berkel, Van Helden, Palm, eds., The History of Science in the Netherlands (1999); Zuidervaart, Van Gent, eds., Between Rhetoric and Reality: Instrumental Practices at the Astronomical Observatory of the Amsterdam Society 'Felix Meritis', 1786-1889 (2013); Dibner (1), Early Electrical Machines, p. 55, illustrating the print; Dibner (2), “G. L. Turner and T. H. Levere, Martinus van Marum: Life and Work, Vol. 4” (book review), Technology and Culture, vol. 16/2 (1975): 295-6.

Price: $4,850.00

See all items by ,