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Jacques Louis David’s 1788 double portrait of Antoine Laurent, known as the “father of modern chemistry,” and his wife and collaborator Marie-Anne Lavoisier, depicts the couple with the rigor and eminence of their influential experiments. They revolutionized the field of chemistry, identifying and naming oxygen, discovering the makeup of water, and pioneering the modern nomenclature system for chemical substances.
But an extensive, three-year analysis of the painting undertaken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the work resides, has uncovered the work’s original composition — and it’s an arguably less intellectually flattering picture of the Lavoisiers. Marie-Anne was initially wearing a massive plumed hat garishly festooned with ribbons and artificial flowers, a far cry from her elegantly modest attire in the final work, and the table ultimately draped in a red tablecloth used to be decorated in expensive gilt bronze.
Most notably, the laboratory equipment displayed on top of the table, which functions as emblems of the Lavoisiers’s scientific prowess, was added later.
This underlying composition, revealed through infrared reflectography and macro X-ray fluorescence, shows the chemists “as wealthy tax collectors and fashionable luxury consumers rather than as the progressive and scientifically minded couple that define the portrait today,” says the Met’s statement.
In collaboration with research scientist Silvia Centeno and associate curator David Pullins, the Met began its analysis in 2019, after conservator Dorothy Mahon noticed irregularities beneath the painting’s surface while removing a layer of varnish. The findings are discussed in a blog post on the Met’s website and in peer-reviewed articles in the Burlington Magazine and Heritage Science.
The underpainting, says Pullins, is “an alternate lens through which to see the Lavoisiers — not for their contributions to science but as members of the wealthy tax collector class, a status that funded their research but ultimately led Lavoisier to the guillotine in 1794.” (During the French Revolution, Antoine, who collected taxes for Louis XVI, was charged with defrauding the state; he had also infamously commissioned a wall around Paris to generate more income from customs duties.)
“Art historically, these revelations provide crucial insight into how David arrived at this milestone of European portraiture, not all at once but in the recalculation and reinvention of existing portrait types, many of which had been pioneered by women portraitists such as Adelaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in the 1780s,” Pullins added.
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The photograph of Mahal, taken in 1872 while she was interned and dispossessed, raises questions of consent.
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Weems’s essay is excerpted from Ways of Hearing: Reflections on Music in 26 Pieces.
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Over 125 artist studios, galleries, and exhibition spaces open their doors to the public for this year’s Jersey City Art and Studio Tour, taking place from September 30 through October 3.