Met restorers have discovered a composition hidden under the portrait of a famous chemist by Jacques Louis David
In 2019, the famous neoclassical portrait of Jacques Louis David by chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife, Marie Anne, was sent to the conservation laboratory of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The job was simple: removing a varnish. But in the process, the researchers also discovered something else: a composition hidden under the paint.
The painting we know depicts the Lavoisiers as the assiduous leaders of a scientific revolution. A humbly dressed Marie-Anne leans over her husband, who is seated at a table with red swaths, hard at work in front of a host of specialized instruments.
But after months of analysis, via techniques such as infrared reflectography and macro X-ray fluorescence mapping, experts learned that the original painting by David Lavoisier and his wife was much less flattering, depicting the couple as well-to-do members of the nobility, basking in their lavish lifestyle. In the artist’s original sketch, the instruments are gone, the table is bare and encrusted with gilded brass details, and Marie Anne dons a chic feathered hat.
The restored painting has now been returned to the Neoclassical Galleries of the Met. Looks like he always has, but his context has changed.
“The revelations about Jacques Louis David’s painting completely transform our understanding of the age-old masterpiece,” Max Hollein, director of the Met, said in a statement. “More than 40 years after the work entered the museum’s collection, it is exciting to acquire new knowledge about the artist’s creative process and the evolution of painting.”
Born in 1743, Lavoisier was responsible for a number of major contributions to modern science, including the metric system, the first table of elements, and the discovery of oxygen and hydrogen. His wife, born in 1758, was instrumental in many of these innovations, often helping Lavoisier with tests.
However, with his success, Lavoisier was also firmly rooted in the French Ancien Régime, the dominant system of government overthrown by the revolution in the last decade of the 18th century. During this period he was arrested by for his complicity as a tax collector, and finally executed by guillotine in May 1794.
The 6-by-9-foot portrait of David was completed in 1788, just before the revolution. The artist intended to debut the work in a salon in 1789 but, according to the Met, was convinced to withdraw at the last minute the flattering tribute from the royal authorities, alarmed by rising tensions indicating the upcoming overthrow. . The painting was not seen by the public until a century later, at the Universal Exhibition of 1889.
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) and Marie Anne Lavoisier (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758-1836) was purchased for the Met in 1977 by philanthropists Charles and Jayne Wrightsman.
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