Revolutionary Instruments: Lavoisier's Tools as Objets d'Art

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748-1825. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and His Wife, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze (1758-1836). 1788, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748-1825. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and His Wife, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze (1758-1836). 1788, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1788, just as the stage was set for revolution, France’s most celebrated scientist met with France’s most celebrated artist. This sitting for a portrait of the illustrious scientist and his wife may not have been an entirely cordial meeting. The scientist, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743– 1794), was one of the king’s men; the artist, Jacques-Louis David (1748– 1825), would four years later vote for the king’s execution. The rencontre yielded an immense canvas still regarded as one of the greatest portraits of the 18th century.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife, Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, (1758–1836) became an icon of the Enlightenment and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting shows Lavoisier and his wife and partner in science, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze (1758–1836). Behind Mme. Lavoisier is a folio, indicating that she is an artist. (As a younger woman, Mme. Lavoisier had studied painting under David’s tutelage, and she may have been the one who instigated the meeting between her husband and her teacher.) In the background of the painting are several pilasters, a signature of David’s neoclassical style. But the most important symbols of Lavoisier’s career are the pieces of chemical equipment. Never mind that they belong in the laboratory and look strangely out of place on a writing desk. They are shown prominently in Lavoisier’s studio so that the viewer knows that this elegant man was a chemist.

It would be interesting to know how the specific pieces of equipment depicted in the portrait were chosen. One can imagine the Lavoisiers showing David their nearly 200 pieces of scientific equipment, many of them beautifully crafted by Nicolas Fortin, Lavoisier’s instrument maker since 1783. Lavoisier and his wife might have chosen pieces for their scientific significance, but David was likely also looking for pieces that would contribute to the overall composition of the portrait. He might also have wanted to paint instruments that would showcase his own skill as a painter at representing reflective surfaces —and this they certainly accomplish. The viewer has no doubt that the glass is glass, the brass is brass, the water is water, and the mercury is mercury.

It may be that the work on Lavoisier’s desk is the manuscript of Traité élémentaire de chimie, which one year after the painting was created would introduce to the world the basic concepts and nomenclature of modern chemistry. The scientific community recognized its importance immediately. Published first in Paris in 1789, it was quickly translated into English as Elements of Chemistry, and Lavoisier became the acknowledged leader of the Chemical Revolution. The popularity of the Traité led to a second edition, published in Paris in 1793, less than a year before Lavoisier stepped up to the guillotine on 8 May 1794. His chemical revolution was well under way as his head and body were carted off to a mass grave.

In the first of the two volumes of the Traité, Lavoisier presents the conclusions and principles derived from his experiments. The second volume describes his experimental methods in detail. Appended to the second volume are 13 plates that show some 170 pieces of laboratory equipment finely drawn to scale by Mme. Lavoisier. Most of these flasks, bottles, jars, siphons, furnaces, tables, and basins do not grace David’s portrait, and those that do are probably the best-known pieces of laboratory glassware in the art world. They also were vital components in several of Lavoisier’s experiments —experiments in which he discovered scientific principles that lie at the very center of modern chemistry.