Archive Page 2

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.



Since elementary school, I’ve remembered the saying, “Remember the Maine” without any idea of what it meant.  Finally, a few weeks ago after a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I learned the story behind the saying!

The Maine was a U.S. “dreadnought” battleship that exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.  More than 260 (of the crew of approximately 350) sailors were killed in the disaster.


USS Maine entering Havana harbor. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

The ship was in Cuba at the time because the U.S. was hoping to force  Spain out of governing Cuba so that we could take over. U.S. zeal to kick Spain out of Cuba was fueled by “yellow journalists” who hoped to sell more newspapers by stirring up anti-Spanish sentiment.  The journalists told lurid stories about how the Spanish mistreated the Cubans and the American public got really riled up at Spain.

How Spain viewed U.S. imperialism. Image from Wikipedia, click for source.

When the Maine blew up, most Americans assumed that Spain was at fault. A slogan popular at the time was “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” and two months after the explosion the U.S. declared war (the Spanish-American War).   A few months after that, Spain ceded us not only Cuba, but Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines!

Although the sinking of the Maine certainly contributed to the start of the war, it is unlikely that the Spanish intentionally exploded the ship. There have been many investigations into the cause of the explosion and none have proven that it was caused by the Spanish.  In fact, many believe that the Maine exploded because the coal it used spontaneously combusted.

Originally, the bodies of the sailors who died were buried in Cuba but in 1899, more than 151 coffins were disinterred and brought to Arlington National Cemetery for reburial.  There was a first memorial to the sailors that consisted of a big anchor and two mortars we took from the Spanish.


First Maine Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Image from Wikipedia, click for source

Many people believed that there were still more bodies on the Maine so in 1910, the Maine was raised and more bodies and body parts were recovered. Eventually 34 more coffins containing remains were brought to Arlington where a second, grander memorial was built. The second memorial is powerful.  At its base is a “receiving vault” (used to store decedents when it was too cold to dig graves in the olden days) that is meant to look like the turret of a battleship.  On top of the vault is the actual mast from the Maine itself.


Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

The remains of the sailors (whose identities are mostly unknown) are buried near the memorial.  Some of them are buried together under the same headstone.  It is heartbreaking to think of all of the young men who died on the Maine.  It is good that they are commemorated so beautifully.

IMG_20150426_103942794 (2)

My photograph.

My photographs.


This story begins in Papua New Guinea, which was thought to be an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean until World War II.  Then, the world discovered that there were tens of thousands of inhabitants there who still lived in the Stone Age.

Naturally. all kinds of scientists jumped at the chance to study these people who had never been corrupted by outside influences.  One of the scientists who arrived was Dr. Robert L. Klitzman whose lecture I greatly enjoyed at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process program this week.

Nowadays. the mesmerizing Dr.Klitzman is a  Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University, but when he was still a student in the 1950s, he went to Papua New Guinea to study an epidemic of a  fatal neurological disease that the locals called kuru.

A Disturbing Video of a Kuru Victim/  You Might Not Want to Watch This.

The doctor explained that kuru is caused by weirdly folded proteins called prions that are as fatal as some viruses.  One of the scary things about prions is that the diseases they cause can have really long incubation periods – prions can hang out in the human body for 20 or even 40 years before disease appears. Typically, kuru would start with a headache, followed by tremors and increasing weakness until death.  The victims were almost exclusively women.

Dr. Klitzman studied precisely how the prions were being transmitted because it had been discovered that kuru was caused by cannibalism, particularly the ingestion of brains  (loaded with prions) at “feasts” that occurred when members of a group died. He actually interviewed people about who had partaken of whom and what they had feasted on.

More women than men contracted kuru because women were always the ones to eat decedents’ brains but they also fed bits of brain to children.  Thus some men also contracted kuru because they ate brains as youngsters. Did they cook the brains first? Yes and you can read more about that here.

Cannibalism is against the law in Papua New Guinea now and no one has died of kuru since 2005. Good news for the women of the island!

Dr Klitzman explained that prions cause other diseases that kill brain cells and thus make brains look spongy (“spongiform encephalopathies”). Sheep get scrapie, so-called because the prions make them try to scrape off their wool.

Until 1996, cows (mostly in the United Kingdom) were getting “mad cow disease” from eating prion-packed sheep.

Humans who ate mad cows may get Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a fatal, incurable, degenerative, neurological malady.  So far, the only suspected cases of Creutzfeldt–Jakob caused by eating mad cows (over 100 victims) have occurred in the United Kingdom and Canada but the American Red  Cross is not taking any chances.

A while ago I went to a blood drive and was turned away because I had lived in England for more than three months between 1980 and 1996 and thus I may have picked up prions at tea.  Ironically, I first went vegetarian in London in 1986 after too many meals with meaty surprises like kidneys with the steak and ox-tails in the stew, but it may have been too late.   Scientists suspect my blood is dangerous and sometimes when I forget a student’s name, I wonder whether prions from an old Wimpy burger are coming back to haunt me.





The Death of Socrates


Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Click for source

Recently I had the great pleasure of attending a fantastic gallery talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The talk was devoted to a 70 minute contemplation of one of my all-time favorite paintings, The Death of Socrates, by the French artist, Jacques Louis David. (If you want to sound artsy, pronounce his last name Dah-VEED).

Our fantastic guide, Alice W. Schwarz, MMA, Museum Educator, told us that the average museum-goer spends 17 seconds looking at a painting. Thus, our 70 minutes was unusual, but it was so worth it to finally understand some of what is going on in this gorgeous 1787 painting which many consider to be David’s finest work.

You probably know the story of Socrates:  He was an Athenian teacher charged with two felonies – refusal to acknowledge the proper gods and corrupting the young.  In 399 BC  he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.  He could have renounced his beliefs or escaped but he chose death instead.

Ms. Schwarz explained what’s going on in the painting:

Socrates (age 70 and quite fit-looking) and the others are in a prison/dungeon that resembles an 18th century French prison.


Old Plato and Mrs Socrates.  My photo as are the others below.

The old man at the foot of the bed is Plato (although in real life he would have been 29 years old when Socrates died). Socrates’ wife is ascending the stairs and waving goodbye in the far background. Ms. Schwarz intimated that Socrates did not have the happiest marriage.


The saddest guy in the painting (in the red toga) is not one of Socrates’ students.  He is a young jail attendant who is handing Socrates a kylix (cup) of poison.  Notice that there are shackles on the ground and there is a red mark on Socrates’ ankle where they recently had been fastened.  Socrates has been freed so that he can walk around after he drinks a tea made from hemlock leaves.  Hemlock, a weed that only grows in areas near the Mediterranean, is so poisonous that a tea brewed of five leaves will kill a human. They allowed Socrates to walk around after drinking the hemlock in order to speed up his death.  Apparently death by hemlock is more protracted and horrible if one merely reclines after ingestion.

socrates students

The rest of the men, of various ages, most of whom aren’t even looking at Socrates, are his students. They are distraught and unafraid to express their anguish.  I think that is why I love this painting so much – it is so heartwarming to see such devotion of students to their beloved teacher.  One can only dream.

Student Work – Mario Cuomo and Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman

Mario Cuomo by Michelle Daniels


Mario Cuomo – Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

















Mario Cuomo was the 52nd governor of New York City and an attorney by profession, but to many he became much more.  Born to Italian immigrant parents he knew the struggles of everyday hard working people and became a voice for those who were less fortunate.

In his early beginnings he tried his hand at a baseball career but due to an injury he could no longer play the sport.  What then became his chosen career path was working as an attorney. He showed great promise early on as an attorney.

In an eminent domain dispute case he helped save 69 families who lived in Queens and were facing eviction from their homes by the city. In order to make way for a school.  He was able to work on behalf of the families and save 55 of the 69 families facing eviction.  Working as an attorney eventually lead Mr. Cuomo to pursue a career in politics.

In his three terms as governor he continued to be star for those who were the less fortunate.  He is best known for his speech given on the night of July 16, 1984 which to some may be known as the “tale of two cities speech” which was given at the Democratic Convention. In his speech he gave voice to those less fortunate and showed the world he was a man of compassion and kindness and he never forgot that he was the product of hard working parents.  His speech spoke to poverty in America and shined light on President Regan and what he was neglecting to see with his own eyes which was an unequal and unfair divide between those who had money and those who were struggling to make ends meet.

Mario Cuomo died on January 1, 2015 in his home due to a medical condition.  Mr. Cuomo is survived by his wife Matilda Cuomo and five children Andrew Cuomo, Dr. Margaret I. Cuomo, Maria Cuomo Cole, Madeline Cuomo O’ Donohue and Christopher Cuomo and 14 grandchildren.


John Cassidy, What is Mario Cuomo’s Legacy? , The New Yorker (Jan. 5, 2015),

Adam Nagourney, Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon, Dies at 82, The New York Times, (Jan. 1, 2015),


Rasipuram Krishnaswami Laxman by Tashi Haskin

R.K. Laxman. Image from India City blog. Click for source.











Tashi Haskin

Tashi Haskin



On January 26, beloved Indian cartoonist Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer (‘R.K.’) Laxman passed away in Pune, India. Internationally known for his satirical cartoons, his career spanned more than 5 decades.  Doctors confirmed that his death was due to multiple organ failure. He was 93.

Mr. Laxman, born on October 24 1921, was the youngest of 7 children. His mother was a homemaker, while his father was a school headmaster. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mysore, he began his career in the city of Mumbai, working for The Free Press Journal. He also provided illustrations for novels by his brother, R.K. Narayan, who became one of India’s most famous writers.

In 1951, while working for the Times of India, Laxman created the cartoon that would bring him worldwide acclaim. Known as “You Said It”, it featured The Common Man, a character who represented everyday people. The Common Man never spoke- he simply observed the goings on. “You Said It” was an almost daily fixture in the lives of Indians and focused primarily on political and societal issues.

The Common Man became so embedded in Indian culture that a television sitcom based on the character was produced. Entitled Ki Duniya, it ran for over a decade.  The character has also been featured on a postage stamp.

In addition to cartoons, Laxman also authored essays, short stories and his autobiography, “The Tunnel of Time” which was published in 1998.

Laxman was the recipient of the 2005 Padma Vibhushan award, which is the second-highest honor that a citizen may be given. There is also a statue of The Common Man in his hometown of Pune.

He is survived by his second wife, children’s book writer Kamala Laxman, and his son Srinivas.



The New York Times

Pandya, H. “R.K. Laxman, Cartoonist Who Amused India for Decades, Dies at 93.” The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2015 from

George, N. “Acclaimed Indian Cartoonist Dies at 94.”

Retrieved January 30, 2015 from







The Pagans of Iceland


Icelandic Pagans. Image from BBC World News. Click for source.


Recently I learned that a pagan temple is being built in Iceland for the first time in a thousand years. According to the BBC World News.

The temple will provide followers of Iceland’s old Norse religion with a place to hold their communal “blot” – or feasts – as well as marriages, name-giving ceremonies, funerals and rite of passage ceremonies for teenagers. Until now, ceremonies have mostly been conducted outdoors during the summer.

“At last, our long journey across the desert is at an end,” says Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, a composer and high priest of Iceland’s neo-pagan Asatru movement.”

The news reminded me of my visit to the National Museum of Iceland a few years ago when I learned about the earliest settlement of Iceland by the Norse during the Viking Age (around 870 AD).


Skeleton of an Early Settler with Gravegoods

Just like the modern day “neo-pagans” who are building the new temple, the original settlers worshipped the Norse gods – Thor, Odin, Freyja, Loki and others.  An exhibit at the museum explained that an ancient writing, The Prose Edda of Snorri Snurlson, describes the settlers’ beliefs about death:  men who died in battle would join Odin in his great hall at Valhalla.  Men who died in bed joined the being,Hel, for eternity in Hel and  “no indication is given as to where women went after death”.

Both sexes did believe in a life after death though. They buried many gravegoods with decedents including entire boats and horses as well as implements they might need in the afterlife.


Drawing of settler buried with horse, shield, sword, spear, knife, lead weights and stones.

Iceland adopted Christianity circa 1000 AD and paganism was outlawed until 1972.  One of the most significant objects at the museum is this tiny bronze figure of a man that dates from around 1000.  Most believe he is Thor, holding his hammer but some argue that he is Jesus, holding a cross.  What do you think?


Image from the National Museum of Iceland. Click for source.

  • While you ponder enjoy a video by Skalmold, a Viking metal band from Iceland!

Assorted Relics; The Holy Dexter, Jesus’ Crib and Royal Wedding Cake

Relics are the body parts and belongings of revered decedents.  Usually, relics are housed in beautiful containers called reliquaries.  Many cultures and religions have traditions of preserving relics and I often run into amazing reliquaries when I visit new places.

I saw one of my favorite- of- all- time relics  last winter in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest. There, I beheld the reliquary that contains the rather spooky mummified right hand, “The Holy Dexter”, of St. Stephen, the founder and first king of Hungary.

Holy dexter

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

Although St.Stephen died almost 1000 years ago, his hand is remarkably well preserved.  A sign in the church notes that the hand is “highly esteemed” by the nation.

This winter I discovered a wonderfully huge and beautiful reliquary in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. If you walk all the way to the front of the church, there are stairs leading down to The Crypt of the Nativity that holds a giant reliquary said to contain wood from Jesus’ crib!



My photo.

After Rome, I came upon a bonanza of Roman Catholic reliquaries in the tiny hill town of Monreale, outside of Palermo, Sicily.  Although the town is small, it has a very famous cathedral dating from 1174.  Mostly to escape the rain, I ventured into the museum attached to the church and was gobsmacked by the many reliquaries I found. Here are some of my favorites, although there were many more:

monreale1 monreale2 monreale 3 monreale 4 monreale 5

Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell whose clearly visible bones or property were contained in the reliquaries.  Some had little typed labels inside the reliquaries, but to me they remain mysteries.




We continue to create relics and reliquaries in modern times.  For example, both John Lennon’s and Elvis’ teeth have been purchased (by a dentist, Dr. Michael Zuk) for preservation. The space suit that Neal Armstrong wore on the moon is also being preserved for future generations.

And last semester we learned that a piece of wedding cake from the 1981 wedding of Princess Di and Prince Charles was  purchased for $1375 in an online auction!

Image from The New York Daily News.  Click for source.

Wedding cake relic in original waxed paper wrapper and box.  Image from The New York Daily News. Click for source.


A few  months later, a slice of Prince William’s wedding cake (from his 2011 marriage to Kate) sold for $7500!


Image from The Sun. Click for source.


According to The Telegraph, there is  “a small but dedicated group of royal cake collectors.  Some … have purchased cakes dating to the days of Britain’s Queen Victoria, who married in 1840.”

I don’t know how collectors preserve old cake, but I love that they are creating sweet modern royal relics!