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.

From Portraiture to Politics

At the time the portrait was painted the Chemical Revolution had been firmly established. Now, thanks largely to Lavoisier, balanced chemical equations could be written; heat could be quantified; air and water (considered primordial elements since antiquity) could be broken down into their components; and, as chemical compounds were given compound names, chemistry could be discussed with a new and reasonable nomenclature. Respiration, that mysterious pneuma of the ancients, had become a chemical reaction akin to the burning of an alcohol lamp.

Lavoisier’s instruments are masterfully painted by David, and their realism is astonishing. But as the paint dried, the tools of the Chemical Revolution went back onto laboratory shelves. Lavoisier supervised the government’s gunpowder manufacture and collaborated in collecting taxes for Louis XVI. David, a radical revolutionary, continued his support of the National Convention. The two men went their very separate ways into the political revolution, David as its champion and Lavoisier as its victim.

It would remain for Mme. Lavoisier, the real centerpiece of David’s painting, to promote the contributions that she and her husband had made. After her husband’s death she retrieved the proofs of his unfinished Mémoires de chimie and managed to publish these classic papers, which contained his final interpretations of his work, in 1805. She continued to promote her husband’s discoveries and to be an important figure in the scientific and intellectual life of Paris. But there must have been moments when she longed for those days spent in the laboratory working with her husband, surrounded by the beautiful objets d’art of Nicolas Fortin.

David belonged to a political revolution —Lavoisier to a scientific one. For a brief historical moment these revolutionaries combined their genius to create a work that beautifully captures the brilliance of the social, political, and intellectual upheaval that whirled around them.

Horton A. Johnson, formerly director of pathology at St. Luke’s–Roosevelt Medical Center, New York City, and professor of pathology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, is a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.