Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier is recognised as the founder of modern chemistry. He was born in Paris in 1743, the son of wealthy parents, both of whom were lawyers, but after a liberal education which included the study of law, it was clear that his interests lay in the field of the natural sciences. He inherited a fortune from his mother but in order to finance his research as well as secure an income, he invested in membership of the Ferme Générale, a consortium which held the contract to collect taxes and customs duties on behalf of the French Crown.
In 1771 Lavoisier married Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, the 14-year-old daughter of a fellow ‘fermier.’She was a very talented draftswoman who seems to have studied under David and she later used her skills to illustrate her husband’s various treatises. She also learned English and Latin so that she could translate scientific works from those languages in order to assist Lavoisier’s studies.
During the 1770s he worked towards a new understanding of combustion discovering the existence of the elements oxygen and nitrogen in the process. In 1783 he demonstrated that water was formed when hydrogen was burned in the presence of oxygen and he went on to establish that oxygen was essential for animal life to flourish. In the same year he collaborated in the publication of a new system of chemical nomenclature.
David shows the great chemist seated at a table covered in red velvet. He has been writing – a quill pen in his hand (probably a reference to his influential work Traité élémentaire de chimie) but he stops momentarily to admire his wife who stands next to him, one arm leaning on his shoulder in a gesture of informality as she stares out of the picture to engage the viewer. A shapely male leg, clad in black, juts out around the red table cloth; it is a rather odd pose – it seems that Lavoisier must have been proud of his elegant legs.
A number of scientific instruments are casually strewn on the table and the floor next to Lavoisier, two of which have been identified as those used in his experiments with gunpowder and in the discovery of oxygen. Behind Marie-Anne, resting on a chair, we can see her artist’s portfolio which provides a compositional balance to her husband’s instruments. Above them extends a wall, decorated to resemble cool marble, its severity relieved only by irregularly spaced pilasters. The austere grandeur of the room reflects David’s neoclassicism but also his preference for unadorned backgrounds so as to focus attention on his sitters.
This splendid double portrait was completed in the cataclysmic year of 1789. The wealthy, urbane scientist and his wife could not foresee the consequences for them, for France and for Europe of the upheavals following the storming of the Bastille on July 14th. Both artist and chemist fell foul of the ensuing political turmoil. Despite Lavoisier’s liberal views and the fact that he served the revolutionary government in a number of roles (working on the commission which planned the adoption of the metric system, for example), as the guiding impetus driving the revolution became more and more radical, with the ascent of an extreme Jacobin faction led by Maximilien Robespierre, his former activities as a tax farmer led to his arrest and execution during the Terror of 1794.
Interestingly, Lavoisier’s demise coincided with the apogee of David’s involvement with revolutionary politics. Early in 1794 David became President of the Convention and it seems he was assiduous in his duties, one of which was the signing of arrest warrants. One wonders if one of these documents related to his erstwhile client, now arraigned as an enemy of the revolution. David himself came perilously close to oblivion later in the year after the fall of Robespierre. He was arrested and imprisoned before being released due to ill health.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1785 Thomas Gainsborough: Mrs Siddons, London, National Gallery
1786 Jean-Baptiste Greuze: A Visit to the Priest, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage
1788 Joshua Reynolds: Cupid Undoing Venus’s Belt, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum