Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, 1788.
Oil on canvas 259.7 cm × 194.8 cm.
Thank you to Rudy Wolff, of the "France in the 1700s" Facebook group, for drawing my attention to this news from the Met.
The results revealed that the first version depicted not the progressive, scientific-minded couple that we see today, but their other identity, that of wealthy tax collectors and fashionable luxury consumers. S.A. Centeno, D. Mahon, F. Carò, F. et al. , Heritage Science, 2021 Article abstract)
Rather than showcasing the couple as progressive scientists, David initially emphasized the couple’s privileged role as rich tax collectors and fashionable consumers of luxury—a status that funded their research but ultimately led Lavoisier to the guillotine in 1794. Metropolitan Museum [Instagram post]
Let us reconsider the evidence:
The social position / self-image of the Lavoisiers
To reduce Lavoisier's multivariate social and intellectual identity to the persona of wealthy tax-collector and ostentatious consumer is at best simplistic, at worst a clumsy piece of retrospective analysis. Histories of science celebrate him above all for his description of oxygen and his analysis of its part in combustion. In the 1780s he enjoyed a positive image as a respected scientist, economist, and Academician, a political progressive and supporter of the Physiocrats. Although he was to be guillotined because of his association with the hated Tax-Farm, he was a supporter of the ideals of the Revolution.
David was a sophisticated commentator, whose discrimination did not suddenly desert him when faced with a modern subject. According to Mary Vital (1995) he conceived the Lavoisiers as a model of constructive social behaviour. He himself was a member of the same progressive milieu and knew the couple personally. In the Autumn 1785 Lavoisier's personal notebook on the Paris Salon contains extensive favourable comments on David's Oath of the Horatii in a notebook on the Paris Salon. In March 1786 David gave drawing lessons to Madame Lavoisier. During 1786 the artist became friendly with the Trudaine brothers, sons of the Intendant Jean-Charles-Philibert Trudaine de Montigny, a colleague of Lavoisier in the Academy of Sciences. (Trudaine had witnessed the Lavoisiers' marriage contract in 1771 and in 1774 Lavoisier dedicated his Opuscules physiques and chimiques to him) The poet André Chénier, whom David also knew at this time, shared an enthusiasm with the Trudaines for amateur science. The artist and his sitters were therefore bound by shared friendships and outlook. See Vital, p.558-9.
The painting, which is monumental in size, was commissioned from David for the considerable sum of £7,000 in 1788. It seems quite likely, given the prominence of Madame Lavoisier in the composition, that she was the prime mover. Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier was a serious and active collaborator in her husband's scientific work, who acted as his recorder and illustrator, and learned English and Latin in order to assist him by translating scientific literature.
All Lavoisier's biographers, beginning with Grimaux in 1888, stated that Marie-Anne received drawing lessons from David. In the 1990s this was confirmed by the discover of two drawings belonging to the family, of a plaster cast and a nude male torso, inscribed with comments by David, who praises the work. The provenance and date (March 1786) suggest they are indeed by Madame Lavoisier. Her portrait of Franklin shows that she did indeed have considerable ability. (Vital (1995), p. 612-3)
In addition to the numerous technical illustration in Lavoisier's publications, sepia drawings by Marie-Anne Paulze survive which show experiments in her husband's laboratory. The pictures were perhaps intended for engravings, or as further illustrations for a scientific work. She depicts herself in the scene prominently, seated to one side observing and recording the proceedings. In these images she wears a style of dress very similar to the one depicted in the painting.
|Lavoisier in his laboratory conducting an experiment on the respiration of a man at work. Photogravure after M.A.P. Lavoisier. | Wellcome Collection|
The immediate occasion for the portrait was the completion by Lavoisier of his Traité élémentaire de chimie published in February 1789 - a rapid success throughout Europe. Discovery of oxygen and determing chemical composition of water. Marie Anne drew and engraved thirteen illustrations for this work, proudly signed "Paulze Lavoisier Sculpsit."
David, then, surely set out from the onset to celebrate enlightened scientific couple at their moment of public acclaim. He refined and focus his theme, but there is no real justification for the idea that he changed his attitude towards his subjects in the course of painting. It should be emphasised that, even in the finished work, the Lavoisiers are not actually engaged in scientific research in a laboratory, but in the study putting the final touches on a written publication - presumably the celebrated Traité. Marie Anne Lavoisier occupies the foreground, ready to support and encourage. Lavoisier turns away from the proofs of his book to give her a uxorious smile; her portfolio of illustrations is visible on the chair to one side. The scientific instruments serve primarily to define the context. David's alterations sharpen the meaning of the scene: extraneous objects - which perhaps featured in the real room - globe, wicker basket, bookcase - are removed. New, more illustrative objects are against the unified background of the red tablecloth. The large piece of apparatus is replaced by a more accurate and artistically striking set of brass and glass instruments.
The painting may readily be compared to David's 1783 portrait of the physician and obstetrician Alphonse Leroy, now in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, The doctor is seated at his desk, informally dressed and seemingly approachable but radiating deeply serious intent.
Many years later Madame Lavoisier remembered nostalgically a mixture of scientific work and informal conviviality among an intimate group of like-minded people.
These were, Lavoisier used to say, his days of happiness: a few enlightened friends, a few young people proud to be granted the honour of cooperating in his experiments, gathered in the morning, in the laboratory; it was there that we took lunch, we discussed, we worked, there that was born the beautiful theory which immortalised its author.
Gillispie, "Notice biographique de Lavoisier par Madame Lavoisier, Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leurs applications, 9 (1956) p.57. cited Vital, p. 613.
A suppression of luxury?
There is nothing to suggest that David was troubled by the depiction of wealth as such. It is known that he was advised to withhold the picture from the Salon of 1789 because of Lavoisier's status as a hated tax farmer. However, the version of the painting concerned was presumably the one we see now. The concealment of the ormulu desk, the most obvious luxury object, was surely an artistic choice. Apart from anything else the addition of the red velvet tablecloth disguises the awkward positioning of Lavoisier's legs. Its introduction no doubt also encouraged David to reconsider his use of reds in other parts of the composition, notably the costumes.
|Understated elegance in men's costume - Calonne by Vigée Lebrun, 1784|
Vigée-Lebrun, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802) Wikimedia Commons