Analysis reveals that the artist’s iconic portrait of the Lavoisiers originally depicted them as fashionable members of the French elite, rather than as the progressive and scientifically minded couple visible today
(September 1, 2021)—The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced today extraordinary new insights into Jacques-Louis David’s 1788 portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Marie-Anne Lavoisier—a landmark of European painting and a cornerstone of The Met collection—following nearly three years of in-depth analysis. The discovery of the painting’s underlying composition shows that David initially emphasized the couple’s privileged role as rich tax collectors and fashionable consumers of luxury, rather than as progressive scientists. In the painting’s first iteration, for example, the later-prominent scientific instruments were entirely absent. These changes reveal the couple’s shifting public face on the brink of the French Revolution and David’s ingenuity in formulating a new kind of portrait.
“The revelations about Jacques-Louis David’s painting completely transform our understanding of the centuries-old masterpiece,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “More than 40 years after the work first entered the Museum’s collection, it is thrilling to gain new insights into the artist’s creative process and the painting’s evolution. It is especially exciting that every step of the study—the meticulous conservation work, the cutting-edge scientific analysis, and the curatorial interpretation—all took place at The Met, a testament to the world-class expertise housed under one roof.”
The full-length double portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie-Anne Lavoisier (Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836) was purchased for The Met in 1977 by Charles and Jayne Wrightsman. Its pristine condition kept the painting out of the Museum’s Department of Paintings Conservation until March 2019, when, at the suggestion of curator emerita Katharine Baetjer, the work arrived for the removal of a degraded synthetic varnish. In the 10 months that Paintings Conservator Dorothy Mahon spent carefully removing the varnish, she observed irregularities and minute cracks in certain areas of the painting, hinting at features just beneath the surface. This led to an extended campaign of technical and art historical analysis conducted in dialogue with Research Scientist Silvia A. Centeno and Associate Curator of European Paintings David Pullins.
State-of-the-art technology—a combination of non-invasive infrared reflectography and macro X-ray fluorescence mapping—was employed to image and examine the painting. Among the most significant discoveries underneath the austere background were: Marie-Anne Lavoisier had first been depicted wearing an enormous plumed hat decorated with ribbons and artificial flowers; a desk richly decorated in gilt bronze was beneath the red tablecloth; and, most notably, the scientific instruments that announce the couple’s place at the birth of modern chemistry were later additions that ultimately redefined the meaning of the portrait.
Conservator Mahon said: “Although this painting had been studied and admired at The Met for decades, it wasn’t until it arrived in Paintings Conservation that anyone suspected the astonishing changes. Determining a solvent mixture that was not only safe for the painting but non-toxic for the conservator who had to remove a varnish from a painting nearly nine feet high was particularly challenging. The aesthetic improvement was well worth the effort, and it was during intimate contact with the surface that hints of the portrait’s long-held secrets began to emerge.”
Research Scientist Centeno commented: “It is incredibly rewarding to utilize the latest scientific advancements to see works of art in a brand-new light. The technology at the heart of this project did not exist in 1977, when the painting entered The Met collection. In fact, until recently, revealing compositions hidden below a painting’s surface with such a level of detail would have been impossible.”
Associate Curator Pullins added: “Today, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier is often referred to as the ‘father of modern chemistry’ and his wife Marie-Anne Lavoisier is known as a key collaborator in his laboratory—aspects of the couple’s personality that have been well served by Jacques-Louis David’s painting. But now we see that another identity was, quite literally, concealed in the present portrait. It is an alternate lens through which to see the Lavoisiers—not for their contributions to science but as members of the wealthy tax collector class, a status that funded their research but ultimately led Lavoisier to the guillotine in 1794. Art historically, these revelations provide crucial insight into how David arrived at this milestone of European portraiture, not all at once but in the recalculation and reinvention of existing portrait types, many of which had been pioneered by women portraitists such as Adelaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in the 1780s.”
Lavoisier was a prominent chemist credited with the discovery of oxygen and the chemical composition of water through experiments in which his wife actively collaborated. However, he was also involved in studies of gunpowder, and a misunderstanding about his removal of this precious commodity from the Bastille in the summer of 1789 threw his alliances into question. This mishap and his status as a tax collector (the more prosaic means by which he funded his scientific research) led to his execution on May 8, 1794. Jacques-Louis David had planned to include his portrait of the Lavoisiers at the Salon of 1789, but the royal authorities recommended that it be withdrawn at the last minute, given the public outcry over the Bastille fiasco. It would not be exhibited publicly until a hundred years later, at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.
Following the analysis and restoration, the portrait was returned to The Met’s neoclassical paintings galleries in November 2020, where it can currently be viewed in Gallery 614.
The new findings are discussed in a Perspectives article on The Met’s website, here, as well as detailed in peer-reviewed articles published by The Burlington Magazine and Heritage Science.
This project was led by Silvia A. Centeno, Research Scientist, Department of Scientific Research; Dorothy Mahon, Conservator, Department of Paintings Conservation; and David Pullins, Associate Curator, Department of European Paintings. Additional Met staff involved included Federico Carò, Research Scientist; Evan Read, Associate Manager of Technical Documentation; and Keith Christiansen, Curator Emeritus and former John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings.
About The Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 by a group of American citizens—businessmen and financiers as well as leading artists and thinkers of the day—who wanted to create a museum to bring art and art education to the American people. Today, The Met displays tens of thousands of objects covering 5,000 years of art from around the world for everyone to experience and enjoy. The Museum lives in two iconic sites in New York City—The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters. Millions of people also take part in The Met experience online. Since its founding, The Met has always aspired to be more than a treasury of rare and beautiful objects. Every day, art comes alive in the Museum's galleries and through its exhibitions and events, revealing both new ideas and unexpected connections across time and across cultures.
September 1, 2021