The Lavoisiers by Jacques Louis David

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A while ago we spent another wonderful hour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art contemplating just one  painting.  This time, our guide, Kathryn Calley Galitz, Associate Museum Educator, focused on Jacques Louis David’s stunning “Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife”.

You probably know that Lavoisier is considered the “Father of Modern Chemistry”, but there is a lot more to his biography!  Lavoisier was born to a very wealthy French family in 1743.  A little-known fact is that the famous chemist actually went to LAW SCHOOL and earned a degree in law although he never practiced.  Instead, he became a tax collector and commissioner of gun powder in addition to studying and writing about chemistry.

Lavosier married Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, when she was 13 and he was 28.  She studied painting with Jacques Louis David and she sketched everything in Lavoisier’s laboratory.  Her drawings are in Lavoisier’s canonical Treatise on Chemistry.

mrs lav

My photograph as are the rest below.

David’s painting is unusual in many ways.  It’s size (8′ by 6′) is remarkable because it is so much larger than portraits of non-nobles during that period. Admittedly, the Lavoisiers were a celebrity couple but, it was  also very unusual to have a woman placed higher up on the canvas than a man. And check out Madame Lavoisier – she’s looking at her teacher, David, rather than her spouse!

David paid a lot of attention to accurately painting the scientific instruments – Ms. Galitz pointed out the mercury in one of the flasks that actually reflects other objects in the room.

The glass globe on the floor reflects the windows (to show off David’s genius, according to our guide).

lav glass

The Lavoisiers paid David an enormous sum for the painting. David had intended to show the painting in the Paris Salon (a prestigious art show) in 1788 but the French Revolution was beginning and Lavoisier rapidly fell out of favor. In fact. the painting was not seen publicly for 100 years after it was completed!

In 1794, Lavoisier was sent to the guillotine.

Execution of Marie Antoinette, but it must have looked much the same for Lavoisier, image from Wikipedia

Execution of Marie Antoinette, but it must have looked much the same to Lavoisier, image from Wikipedia

 David voted in favor of the death penalty for Lavoisier!

Madame Lavoisier’s father was guillotined the same day as her husband, but she was spared. She remarried another scientist, Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumfort), an eccentric physicist.  Apparently that wasn’t such a happy marriage.  Marie-Anne kept the name Lavoisier and hung the David portrait in her room for the rest of her life.


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