In 1788, Jacques Louis David painted a full-length double portrait of the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, his wife and scientific collaborator, casting them as personifications of the Enlightenment. They set the striking pair in an elegant drawing room — evoking an apartment they occupied in the Paris Arsenal where Lavoisier had built one of the most well-equipped laboratories in Europe. The canvas is extraordinarily large — over 8 by 6 feet — a scale customarily designated for portraits of princes and kings, but one that Lavoisier no doubt thought fitting, as his experiments had thrust France to the forefront of 18th-century science.
The artist’s signature places the portrait in the French capital in the year before the Revolution. On July 14, 1789, a mob stormed the Bastille. Five years later, Robespierre put Lavoisier on trial for profiting as a partner in the ferme générale, a corporation that collected taxes for the French king. He was found guilty and guillotined the same day. Astonishingly, David, who had entered politics as a delegate to the National Convention, made no move to stop Lavoisier’s killing. In retrospect, the painting’s celebratory beauty seems chilling and cruelly ironic.
Lavoisier wears a plain black frock coat and sits at a table with a quill pen in his hand, and with papers and glass instruments (a gasometer, a barometer) before him. He turns to look up at Marie Anne in a cascading white dress, tied with a pale blue sash; she rests her arm on his shoulder. Her dark cloak is thrown on a chair, on which she has also propped a portfolio. Marie Anne would illustrate Lavoisier’s 1789 Elements of Chemistry — a text that laid the foundations of the field. She had also learned English, and her translations would allow Lavoisier to read papers by British scientists.
Lavoisier and Marie Anne are not quite posed, but caught at a spontaneous moment, as if stopped in the course of their work. Her fashionable dress, her powdered hair, and the fluted pilasters behind her conjure Paris under the Ancien Regime. She faces out while glancing off to the side as though something has crossed her mind. Lavoisier’s expression conveys surprise, but, like the painting itself, is not easy to read.
To draw attention to the science, David exploited his art — creating with slight strokes of white paint the illusion that a glass balloon on the floor reflects windows across the room. The picture’s power derives from its arresting realism that documents the complicated truth: that Lavoisier’s revolution in chemistry took place, in fact, under the monarchy — in whose running he had played an official part.
In November 2020, the portrait went up in the European paintings galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unveiled after two years of conservation, which has brought out the clarity of the whites, the depth of the blacks — and revealed the subtlety of David’s muted palette. Remarkably, technical analysis revealed that beneath this portrait was an earlier, very different one. A conservator, removing varnish, saw in cracks in the paint surrounding Marie Anne’s head “tendril shoots of vermilion.” Scans showed tall red feathers and wide red ribbons on a large black hat, like those worn by Marie Antoinette. Lavoisier too had been aristocratically dressed, in a brown velvet jacket with gold buttons. They had been seated at a mahogany desk with ormolu mounts, on which lay three long sheets of paper — possibly documents related to his government work. There were no scientific instruments.
At some point, the Lavoisiers and David must have agreed that they would repaint significant parts of the portrait, removing or playing down attributes of affluence and aristocracy. He painted over Marie Anne’s hat. He replaced Lavoisier’s velvet jacket with a plain black coat. He hid the ornamented desk beneath the red cloth. Now significantly, on the table and the floor, the painter added the glass instruments, to recast the financier as the chemist.
David’s technique dazzles. Every inch of the canvas was highly finished. He applied paint sparingly, building up thin layers to refine color and add delicate modeling. As a neoclassicist, he wanted the paint surface to mimic the marble of ancient sculpture.
By accommodating the political reality, David brought the subject up to date. He also intensified the Lavoisiers’ encounter, making the picture modern in its immediacy, its capturing a moment about to pass. Eliminating bookshelves, they created an empty expanse of dark gray wall, against which they silhouetted the figures, drawing attention to their faces, which they left half in shadow. From Marie Anne’s hand, a beam of light charges down a fold in the red cloth to the glass balloon on the floor — it lies on its side, as though accidentally knocked over.
Viewers with knowledge of Lavoisier’s fate may easily see in the portrait signs of uncertainty and also sense an undercurrent of foreboding. David’s unsettling masterpiece seems to reflect the very process of having to rework the canvas and the urgency felt by Lavoisier in negotiating the political forces that would lead to his execution.
—Ms. Saltzman is the author most recently of “Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast,” which will be out in paperback in May.
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