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FOILING THE MOB—JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID’S LAVOISIER PORTRAIT PART 2

WHEN WE LEFT Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier in Part 1, they were pursuing joint research in the new chemistry. Alas, the French Revolution was coming.

A Couple’s Portrait. In 1788, French portraitist Jacques-Louis David painted the Lavoisiers. As noted in Smithsonian Magazine, September 3, 2021, his grand portrait, 102.2 in. x 76.6 in., “originally depicted Antoine and Marie-Anne as wealthy elites, not modern scientists.” 

joint research in the new chemistry

pursuing joint research in the new chemistry.

Recall, of course, Lavoisier’s involvement in the Ferm Générale; indeed, he had a gig there as a tax collector.

joint research in the new chemstry.

This was the eve of the French Revolution and, as Wikipedia notes, David’s “painting was denied a customary public display at the Paris Salon for fear that it might inflame anti-aristocratic passions.”

The artist reacted by revising his work into the portrait of a scientific couple we see today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his Wife, Jacques-Louis David, 1788.

The two are lovingly portrayed, she attired in white, her hair conservatively styled by standards of the day. Lavoisier’s table has scientific equipment. The background is largely unadored.

However…. Silvia A. Centeno, Dorothy Mahon, and David Pullins describe “Refashioning the Lavoisiers” in The Met, September 1, 2021. Infrared and X-ray spectroscopy were used to analyze layers of David’s portrait and identify chemical compositions of its pigments.

The Met authors note, “Among the most spectacular findings was that, beneath the austere background, Madame Lavoisier had first been depicted wearing an enormous hat decorated with ribbons and artificial flowers. The red tablecloth was once draped over a desk decorated in gilt bronze and, perhaps most surprisingly, the scientific instruments that announce the couple’s place at the birth of modern chemistry—and so define the portrait today—were all the result of a later campaign that reworked how the Lavoisiers were presented.”

 In particular, Marie-Anne’s elaborate hat has been identified as a chapeau a la Tarare, fashionable during the summer or fall of 1787. And tally books shelved in the background, exemplary of the hated Ferme Générale, were covered over.

At left, a fashionable chapeau of 1787. A right, a distribution map of lead pigment (in red) and mercury pigment (in white) reveal Marie-Anne’s original hat. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Lavoisier was arrested as a traitor, largely because of his Ferme Générale involvement. Wikipedia notes, “According to popular legend, the appeal to spare his life so that he could continue his experiments was cut short by the judge, Coffinhal: “La République n’a pas besoin de savants ni de chimistes; le cours de la justice ne peut être suspendu.” (“The Republic needs neither scholars nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.”) The judge Coffinhal himself would be executed three months later….”

Antoine Lavoisier, age 50, was guillotined on May 8, 1794. His father-in-law Jacques Paulze was executed the same day.

Marie-Anne survived. Though the government seized her husband’s notebooks and laboratory equipment, she organized publication of Lavoisier’s final work, Mémoires de Chimie, a compilation of his papers and those of his colleagues demonstrating the principles of the new chemistry. 

Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier died, age 78, in 1836. 

In retrospect, despite the turmoil, Jacques-Louis David’s  revised portrait of a loving couple practicing science together is an appropriate portrayal. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

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