It feels like everything you need to know about Antoine Lavoisier, the most important architect of the chemical revolution of the late 18th century, is contained in the portrait of the French scientist painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1788. He is both the classic way of enlightenment, his scientific instruments shine on the table on which he writes, and an aristocrat surrounded by opulence, from the red velvet of the tablecloth to the austere neoclassical elegance of the background. Most noticeable is that he is not even the central figure in the portrait – because he sits admiringly (or nervously?) The dress outshines her husband’s gloomy black. She looks out of the screen with a cool, slightly amused look, the expression on her face tells us who is really in charge here.
Lavoisier owed much to his wife, who organized her husband’s notes and memoirs to secure his legacy after he was guillotined in 1794. Marie-Anne worked with her husband in the laboratory and used the drawing skills David had learned himself to make sketches of. to create his experiments. Perhaps most valuable was her ability to read, translate, understand, and criticize scientific works in English. At a time when science was largely a closed book for women, she was not – as some stories suggest – just a dutiful wife and assistant, but a co-worker.
As a portrait of a progressive Enlightenment couple, David’s painting tells such a compelling story that it is downright shocking to be turned upside down by a new analysis by the restorers and curators at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses the painting the literally hidden layers and meanings of the image.1 Researcher Silvia Centeno and her colleagues used microscopic and spectroscopic techniques to examine the pigments and techniques David used, revealing the original composition, which the artist then painted over. The buried layers were first exposed by infrared reflectography: when infrared radiation penetrates the paint surface, the reflected spectrum reveals overpainted features, including the original signature in likely charcoal. The researchers then looked more closely with macro-X-ray fluorescence, which shows maps of certain elements such as lead (usually as white lead), mercury (in vermilion), iron, and calcium.
What a different story they tell! The technical tools were not available at all in the first draft, which suggests that Antoine did not originally write down his scientific findings, but perhaps instead turned to his work as a tax collector for Louis XVI as the wealthy henchman of the monarchy, who allegedly got rich through fraud. Equally shocking is what sits on Marie-Anne’s head – not just the luscious wig of the last piece, but a huge, black and red hat adorned with flowers, in a style that was fashionable in late 1787 and for the eye-catching Consumption of the ruling classes is characteristic. In other words, this was not a portrait of rationalist progressives at all, but of the kind of privileged celebrities who were viewed as enemies of the people during the revolution. David also seems to have originally painted bookshelves behind the sitter – were they stressful in any way?
Discretion is the better part of bravery
Centeno and colleagues believe that David’s changes were made in 1787-88, presumably to save the image of his sitters when France tipped towards revolution. What we will likely never know is whether this was done at the artist’s discretion or at the request of the Lavoisiers, since they saw which way the wind was blowing. David’s ability testifies to the fact that no traces of the changes have remained on the paint surface – such overworking and overpainting can often be recognized after careful examination, for example through the formation of shadows on raised areas due to thicker paintwork when the surface is illuminated with light in a very flat (‘ rake ‘) angle. David was known for his technical virtuosity, which he used here by selecting pigments that completely covered and darkened the strongly colored hat, even with a very thin coating.
David was no stranger to self-sustaining reinvention in these tumultuous times. A celebrated portraitist during the monarchy, he quickly moved on to Robespierre and the Revolution and enjoyed great influence in the arts during the Republic. But when he was followed by the coup d’état of Napoleon Bonaparte, David also vied for the favor of the new ruler: his dramatic painting of the self-proclaimed emperor astride a rearing horse is probably his best-known work.
Antoine himself wasn’t that skilled, of course, but his wife survived the terror. After Antoine’s execution, she was briefly detained but survived bankruptcy to recover her husband’s confiscated books, edit his notes and have them published. Eventually she went to England, where she met and married the intrepid adventurer and physicist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who co-founded the Royal Institution in London in 1799. The marriage was unhappy and Marie-Anne soon returned to France and died in Paris in 1836 at the age of 78 – and then retains the name of her famous first husband.