Jacques-Louis David:
Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and His Wife

Click on the picture to see an enlarged version.

    • Oil on Canvas, 8' 8" x 7' 4"
    • 1788
    • The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) was an eminent scientist. Elected to the Académie des Sciences at the age of twenty-five, he became the first great French chemist. In 1783, he was the first person to succeed in determining the composition of water and in synthesizing the compound from its elements. This discovery made him famous. He was also an extremely wealthy man. A Fermier-Général (tax collector for the Crown), he belonged to that class of financiers whose wealth would eventually arouse envy and precipitate its downfall. He was also a remarkable administrator. In recognition of his very diverse talents, he was elected alternate deputy to the States-General in 1789. His wife, Marie-Anne Paulze (1758-1836), was the daughter of a Fermier-Général. She took drawing lessons from David, and was an intelligent, cultured woman with a passion for chemistry that matched her husband's..

In this double portrait David has painted a happy couple--two intelligent, sensitive people who are united by tenderness for each other. Aside from his portraits of the members of his own family, David, ever the realist, did not paint many common people. Most of his models came from the aristocracy and the haute-bourgeoisie. For this painting, David was paid an astronomical sum at the time: $ 25,000, or nearly double the amount he received as the royal commission for the Oath of the Horatii..

He preferred the sublime to the unpretentious; the Lavoisiers, however, had both qualities. David expresses his respect and affection for them through the air of superior simplicity with which he has endowed them. What David is depicting in this portrait is charming virtue, natural talent, intimacy between two exceptional individuals. This is the core of the painting.

The balance is achieved through its delicacy and harmony: the composition is enhanced by the dominant colors--red, black, blue, and white. David makes Madame Lavoisier's full white dress a soft, luminous mass that corresponds to the softness of her features and her gaze. Her husband's black suit takes on a kind of luster from the whites and reds around it. The warmth of the large red velvet table covering reinforces the subdued simplicity of the scene.

The laboratory instruments have a shimmering quality. The distillation flask on the right has the transparency and brilliance of the finest glass, while the test tubes on the table have the flat, dense look of thick glass; each instrument has its own distinct texture and reflections play off their surfaces with a marvelous lightness. They are in the picture to bear witness to the Lavoisiers' experiments and their sole object is to serve as symbols and emblems jujst as portfolio in the left background is a reminder of Madame Lavoisier's interest in art..

The static nature of the painting is skillfully broken in the triangle bisected by Lavoisier's extended leg. This is not merely family tenderness--it is also amusing chemistry. It is a felicitous and quietly radiant display of David's talent at its best. Fortunately, the painting contains no hint of the tragedies ahead. Both Lavoisier and his wife will be guillotined in the reign of Terror, just 5 years later.

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