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The Lavoisier double couple: the secrets of the painting

The oil canvas by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) which in 1788 portrays the gentlemen de Lavoisier, namely Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze (1758-1836), represents the universal icon of main architect of the chemical revolution, an image strengthened by the presence of his wife, his indispensable collaborator.

Looking at the painting as a whole (260×200 cm), we notice that Antoine-Laurent is not the central figure, as it is dominated by that of Marie-Anne Pierrette who almost eclipses her husband’s gloomy dress with his voluminous white dress. She looks out of the canvas with a cold and slightly amused gaze while her posture communicates to the observer the important role she really plays and which is in perfect complementary balance with that of her husband. She assumes the pose of leaning on him, but the situation is perfectly counterbalanced by his adoring gaze at her. Lavoisier owed a lot to his wife, who actively collaborated in carrying out his experiments. In addition, Marie-Anne used the drawing techniques she learned from David himself to produce wonderful sketches of the experiments and laboratory equipment. Her undoubted qualities in the impeccable interpretation of the role of hostess and in knowing how to welcome and retain distinguished visitors and international colleagues of her husband, were accompanied by her remarkable ability to read and translate, as well as to understand and criticize, scientific works written in English. In an age when science was virtually closed to women, she was not – as some stories have suggested – just a caring wife and assistant, but a talented collaborator. After Laurent-Antoine’s execution in 1794, she survived bankruptcy and was able to recover all the books confiscated from her husband, arrange his notes and have them published. Then, she left for England, where she met and married the intrepid adventurer and physicist Benjamin Thompson, Earl Rumford, who, in 1799, helped found the Royal Institution of London. The marriage was unhappy and Marie-Anne soon returned to France, dying in Paris in 1836 at the age of 78 and forever retaining the name of her illustrious first husband.

Returning to the portrait of the de Lavoisier lords, at first glance they seem to express the incarnation of a modern couple born of the Enlightenment. But as sometimes happens, the first feeling is not the right one. In fact, a thorough scientific investigation has provided a surprising result: the canvas exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which depicts a bourgeois couple devoted to science, is the result of a skilful modification of the original pictorial version which, at the on the contrary, he would have portrayed them with a totally different identity, namely that of an aristocratic couple opposing luxury ornaments and furnishings. In the current year, some American researchers used microscopic and spectroscopic techniques to investigate the pigments and techniques used by David, revealing the original pictorial composition, later repainted by the artist himself. The analytical approach, based on the combination of sophisticated analytical techniques such as X-ray macro fluorescence and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), has allowed us to visualize the existence of an antecedent and hidden pictorial composition by David himself thanks to skilful thin brushstrokes, and designed to ensure a detailed multilayer coverage, obtained with the use of specific covering pigments such as white cerussite (Pb), vermilion cinnabar (Hg), white chalk (Ca), red hematite and yellow goethite (Fe) .

Focusing attention on the figure of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the 1788 painting portrays him alongside his glittering scientific instruments, which, however, analysis has shown were added by David at a later time. The more difficult reverse process of covering was adopted by David in hiding from the eyes of republican posterity the bookshelves that in the initial version adorned the wall in the background of the painting. It had to be compromising accounting books, instruments of control of the monarchical administration to be proudly exhibited while carrying out the important role of tax collector, a role covered with extreme zeal and honesty by Lavoisier before establishing himself as the undisputed father of modern chemistry at the eve of the revolutionary epic. On the other hand, Louis XVI’s tax collection activity for France was the cause that cost him the guillotine sentence, accused by the revolutionaries of being an enriched stooge of the monarchy.

As for Marie-Anne Pierrette, in the hidden image she flaunts an exuberant wig, adorned with a showy red and black hat with ribbons and floral ornaments, according to the fashion of the late 1700s, characteristic of the sumptuous style of the ruling class.

In conclusion, the scientific study of 2021 highlighted that the first draft of David’s work portrayed a couple certainly not inspired by the principles of the Enlightenment – as their passionate scientific commitment amply demonstrated – but opposed the privileges and icons of a class. considered by the Revolution to be the enemy of the bourgeoisie and the people. The most probable hypothesis is that the changes were made by David in the same year 1788, presumably to save the image of his models, while France was heading towards the revolution. The question remains as to who decided to modify the painting: the artist or the de Lavoisier gentlemen, after having understood which way the wind was blowing? The current facts invite us to be satisfied with the technical evaluation and that is that the painting constitutes a testimony of David’s incredible expertise, since any revisions and oil repainting can be easily unmasked by examining the shadows of the areas in relief due to the greater thickness of the paint. On the other hand, the story tells that David – an established portrait painter during the monarchy – at one point swore allegiance to Robespierre and the Revolution and when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power he sought the favor of the new ruler. Not surprisingly, the painting of the emperor riding a rearing horse is probably his best known effort … obviously together with the “double effort” of having portrayed the Lavoisier couple.

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