New revelations on Jacques-Louis David's masterpiece portrait
A very recent discovery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York concerns a 1788 oil on canvas by Jacques-Louis David, the Portrait of the Lavoisier spouses, definitely one of the most beautiful neoclassical portraits in the world. Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier belonged to the Parisian aristocracy and became famous as pioneers of modern chemistry.
The painting was paid by Antoine Lavoisier the huge sum of 7,000 French lire (King Louis XVI had paid David himself for the work ‘The lictors bring the bodies of their children to Brutus’ “only” 6,000 lire). On the death of Marie Anne Lavoisier in 1836, the painting was inherited by her granddaughter, Countess of Chazelles, and her heirs a century later put it up for sale. The American magnate John Rockefeller bought it in 1925 and in 1977 it entered the Metropolitan Museum.
The couple is portrayed in their laboratory, he is sitting at his desk, she is standing, and in front of them there are some of the scientific instruments used for their important discoveries. Among the many of them, we can mention that Antoine in 1779 recognized the two parts of the air, baptizing them oxygen and nitrogen, and in 1783 he did the same with hydrogen.
On the armchair on the left you can see a folder of drawings: they are by Marie-Anne who was the illustrator of her husband’s books, whom she married at the age of 13 (he was 27!), Marie-Anne is said to have been a student of David himself.
In excellent conservation conditions, the work was only recently taken to the museum’s restoration laboratory to remove an annoying oxidized and yellowed paint that covered the surface. Careful scientific analyses before the restoration, made it possible to discover that under the visible pictorial layer there were other details that had never been detected
Scientific analyses thus allowed us to “see” that the work had originally been composed in a very different way: David had not represented the Lavoisiers as a couple of enlightened scientists, but as rich aristocrats of the Ancien Régime as they were.
The painting was made by David in 1788 to then be exhibited in the Salon of 1789, the year of the Revolution. The situation for the aristocrats became more and more dangerous, and so was it for Antoine, who in addition to being a scientist, had also been a tax collector, a very unloved role.
David therefore decided, almost certainly in agreement with the Lavoisier spouses, to modify their representation in the painting, changing the clothes and the environment around them.
Thanks to scientific analyses it was thus discovered that Marie-Anne was dressed in the fashion of the Ancien Régime, with a huge hat à la tartare with feathers and ribbons,
and the scientist himself was dressed much more elegantly, with gold buttons, seated at a gilded mahogany table, facing the folders of documents that identified him as a tax collector.
In the next version, the one we know, the Lavoisiers are dressed in a decidedly simpler way, more suited to their role as scientists that at that point they wanted to emphasize; this is also the reason for the introduction of scientific instruments and for eliminating the tax papers from the painting.
Unfortunately this change of representation was not enough to save the life of Antoine Lavoisier, who was guillotined, together with his father-in-law, on May 8, 1794. Marie-Anne, who had always visited him during his imprisonment and fought for his release, she saved herself and later rebuilt her life, marrying another scientist in 1804, the physicist Benjamin Thompson, Earl of Rumford, but she insisted throughout her life to keep the surname of her first husband, showing him eternal devotion. She died suddenly in her home in Paris on February 10, 1836 at the age of 78.
For the scientific testing, in the beginning, infrared reflectography was used which allows to see through the first pictorial layers and visualise what is underneath. After this first analysis, XRF mapping was used, which makes it possible to obtain very detailed maps of the chemical elements present on the painting without absolutely damaging it, maps not only of the surface elements but also of the underlying ones.
Once again the modern techniques of analysis have made it possible to obtain very important information, in this case not so much on the health of the painting or on its composition, but rather on the history of the portrayed characters. The scientific results have allowed us to glimpse into the last years of the French scientist’s life, who tried them all to save himself from the revolutionary fury, including modifying the beautiful portrait made by Jacques-Louis David; such information we would never have recovered without the laboratory research.
One last anecdote about Antoine Lavoisier. Scientist to the last, it seems that he had asked one of his servants to verify if the death on the guillotine was really as instantaneous as it was said. Thus Lavoisier, in agreement with the servant, endeavored to blink as long as he could, and the servant noted that the last blink of an eye had been 15 seconds after the beheading. It is an undocumented episode, so it may well be a legend, but what is true is that subsequent experimental tests have essentially confirmed that the brain and facial muscles remain active for several seconds after detachment from the body.