Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) was an eminent scientist. Elected to the
Académie des Sciences at the age of twenty-five, he became the first great French
chemist. In 1783, he was the first person to succeed in determining the composition
of water and in synthesizing the compound from its elements. This discovery made
him famous. He was also an extremely wealthy man. A Fermier-Général (tax collector for the Crown), he belonged to that class of financiers whose wealth would eventually arouse envy and
precipitate its downfall. He was also a remarkable administrator. In recognition of his very diverse
talents, he was elected alternate deputy to the States-General in 1789.
His wife, Marie-Anne Paulze (1758-1836), was the daughter of a Fermier-Général. She took
drawing lessons from David, and was an intelligent, cultured woman with a passion for chemistry
that matched her husband's.
In this double portrait David has painted a happy couple--two intelligent, sensitive people who are
united by their tenderness for each other. Aside from his portraits of the members of his own
family, David, ever the realist, did not paint many common people. Most of his models came from
the aristocracy and the haute-bourgeoisie. For this painting, David was paid an astronomical sum at
the time: 7,000 pounds, or nearly double the amount he received as the royal commission for the
He preferred the sublime to the unpretentious; the Lavoisiers, however, had
both qualities. David expresses his respect and affection for them through the air of
superior simplicity with which he has endowed them. What David is depicting in this
portrait is charming virtue, natural talent, intimacy between two exceptional individuals. This is the
core of the painting.
The balance, however, is admirable in its delicacy and harmony: the composition is enhanced by
the dominant colors--red, black, blue, and white. Madame Lavoisier is wearing a full white dress
whose folds form a reversed corolla. David has made the dress a soft, luminous mass that
corresponds to the softness of her features and her gaze. Her husband's black suit, far from being
somber, takes on a kind of luster from the whites and reds around it. The warmth of the large red
velvet table covering reinforces the subdued simplicity of the scene. The blond curls of Madame
Lavoisier's wig cascade down her back. Her aquamarine sash, tied like a ribbon on a gift box, and
her husband's bright cuffs and jabot are sparkling grace notes against the pure tones of their
The laboratory instruments share this quietly shimmering quality. The distillation flask on the
right has the transparency and brilliance of the finest glass, while the
test tubes on the table have the flat, dense look of thick glass; each instrument has it's
own distinct texture and reflections play off their surfaces with a marvelous lightness.
They are in the picture to bear witness to the Lavoisiers' experiments and their sole
object is to serve as symbols and emblems. They are, above all, still life masterpieces.
On the left, the portfolio on the chair is a reminder of Madame Lavoisier's interest in
The overall movement of the painting, restrained and delicate, is skillfully contained in a triangle
bisected by Lavoisier's extended leg. This is not merely family
tenderness- it is also amusing chemistry. It is a felicitous and quietly radiant display
of David's talent at its best.
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