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.
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.