essay

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife by Jacque-Louis David

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife by Jacque-Louis David 1788

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife by Jacque-Louis David 1788

Lavoisier succeeded in many areas of science. He is best known for his Law of Conservation of Matter and his experiments with oxygen. He also began a uniform system of measurement in France that we know now as the metric system. He also, with the help of others, initiated a system of chemical nomenclature, commenced the beginnings of analytical chemistry, determined the nature of animal respiration, discovered that diamonds are crystalline carbon, resolved the properties of acids and experimented with various gases, concluding that air is composed mostly of oxygen and nitrogen. The list of Lavoisier’s scientific achievements is as impressive as it is extensive. Needless to say, his experimentation with acids, gases, soils, as well as other observations, had great industrial and technical ramifications.

Marie-Paulze Lavoisier

Marie-Paulze Lavoisier

[1]His wife, Marie-Paulze Lavoisier, participated in his scientific endeavors by assisting in experiments and recording results. She mastered the English language in order to translate scientific works into French for the benefit of her husband. She also studied drawing under David so she could produce detailed illustrations of experiments and equipment for publication in her husband’s papers, which required an intimate knowledge of the methodology and the processes involved.

Although Lavoisier supported liberal social concepts prominent during the Enlightenment, his wife was much more strident in her social views, regularly participating in political discussion prevalent in the Trudaine Circle[2], which included enlightened administrators like Turgot[3] and philosophical intellectuals like the mathematician, Condorcet[4]. Lavoisier eagerly participated with his wife in her progressive activities.

Unfortunately, the Revolution caught up with Lavoisier when he picked a heated, scientific fight with the infamous, Jean-Paul Marat[5], the strident and hateful mouthpiece of the Reign of Terror. Lavoisier claimed a measuring device of Marat’s design was useless, succeeded in preventing Marat’s admission to the Academy of Science and firmly rejected Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism which Marat thought extremely beneficial to society.[6] Already an enemy, Marat saw Lavoisier’s previous positions with the royal government–among other things–as a reason to brand him as an apostate to the Revolution. Lavoisier placed himself under the sword of Damocles with such active revulsion of Marat. The guillotine severed his brilliant mind from the world approximately three years after David executed Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife. In a twist of fate, Marat succumbed to stabs by Charlotte Corday, a Girondist[7] and, in this case, an avenging angel. David went on to paint his famous, The Death of Marat.

Jean-Paul Marat

Jean-Paul Marat

 

Detail from The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David

Detail from The Death of Marat, Oil on Canvas, Jacques-Louis David 1793

 

David’s depiction exhibits Lavoisier interrupted by his wife as he works. We know he works on scientific matters by the sundry equipment on the table and the floor. Marie comes close against her husband, placing her left arm on his shoulder and leaning forward with interest in her husband’s affairs, steadying herself and anchoring her husband to his work with her right hand. The rigorous diagonals produced by Lavoisier’s leg, the strong highlight of the tablecloth, and the arm of Marie emphasizes the representation of her stabilizing and supportive influence. Stability is reinforced by the pyramidal shape completed by her stance and the lines of her dress. Her image occupies a commanding place in David’s picture and takes on at least the appearance of equality in intellectual stature, which is not typical of the time. Lavoisier not only looks at her with familiarity but also with the realization of her partnership in his labors. Lavoisier lifts his head from his hand as if in deep concentration and looks up from his work to find a familiar companion and helper.

In spite of their liberal, republican ideals, the couple is dressed and in surroundings suitable for the aristocrats that they were. One could not mistake the persons in this picture as radicals or revolutionaries.

David’s painting was executed for the salon of 1789. However, the political climate was volatile, the Bastille had fallen and revolutionary fervor at new heights. Lavoisier, who at the time was the controller of the munitions, became embroiled in a controversy involving the movement of gunpowder and a rumor that traitors were taking it out of the country. He came close at that time to lose his life in a riot. Lavoisier, as well as those in charge, thought better of exhibiting, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife to a public inflamed by revolutionary zeal. In the course of execution of this picture, David was not confronted with the broiling political environment yet to come. Lavoisier and His Wife presents an air of domestic tranquility, rendered with an attention to details to portray accurately the character of his friend and his friend’s wife.

Besides the classic geometry used in the construction of the composition, the marvelous use of what we call negative space gives an air of significance and drama. David was an expert in placing figures in space and used his abundance of space time and time again to denote a feeling of the importance, drama or intensity of the action happening.

 

The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, Oil on Canvas, David 1789

The Lictors Bringing to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, Oil on Canvas, David 1789

 

 

The Coronation of Napoleon, Oil on Canvas, David 1805-7

The Coronation of Napoleon, Oil on Canvas, David 1805-7

HBosler

self-portrait-in-red

self-portrait-in-red


[7] “Girondists – Infoplease.” 2012. 23 Aug. 2015 <http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/history/girondists.html>

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