The Father (and Mother?) of Chemistry


Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836). Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Everett Fahy, 1977. Photo:

Lavoisier is credited with changing chemistry from a qualitative to a quantitative science.  He discovered the role oxygen plays in combustion, stated the law of conservation of mass, helped construct the metric system, wrote the first extensive list of elements, and helped reform chemical nomenclature.

Aside from its glimpse at the height of the Enlightenment in France, what appeals to me in this painting is the sight of a happy couple working together.   He pauses in writing to look up at her; she leans on his shoulder.  On the red velvet throw that covers the table are the tools of their trade: a barometer, a gasometer, a water still, and a glass bell jar.

The Lavoisiers at work

The Lavoisiers at work – sketch by Mme Lavoisier. Photo: Wikipedia

Madame Lavoisier acted as her husband’s lab assistant, and yes, apparently dressed like much as she did here.  (In her charming sketch of them at work in the lab, she’s seated at the far right.) She is usually given credit for the drawings that illustrate M. Lavoisier’s 1789 Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry), the first modern textbook on chemistry.  She had studied with Jacques-Louis David, the prominent Neoclassical artist who painted this double portrait; her drawing portfolio rests on a chair at the left side of this portrait.

If you’re curious about Lavoisier, check out the External Links here (unless you can get your hands on the Dictionary of Scientific Biography); about his wife, here.  On Jacques-Louis David, who is almost single-handedly responsible for shifting French painting from the Rococo of Boucher and Fragonard to the Neoclassical, see my essay Seismic Shifts in Subject and Style: 19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy.

What I’ll be looking at next time I see this painting

  • The details on the faces and the scientific instruments.


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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, From Portraits to Puddles, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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