My favourite painting: Paul Nurse

'It is a magnificent painting'

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife, 1788,byJacquesLouisDavid (1748–1825), 8ft 61⁄4in by 6ft 45⁄8in, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Paul Nurse says:
‘It is unusual to see paintings of scientists and David’s Lavoisier is memorable because it is such a fine one. The only other paintings of comparable quality I know are Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Geographer. I like the visually striking leg of Lavoisier extending out of the picture and the jumble of scientific apparatus framed by the Classical surroundings. All is softened by the warmth of his gaze at his wife and research assistant, as well as her elegant, although rather impractical, dress. His face displays a quiet confidence, reflecting that he is the greatest chemist of his time, whom history will judge as the founder of modern chemistry. It is a magnificent painting.’

Sir Paul Nurse is President of the Royal Society.

John McEwen comments:
Jacques Louis David was a cousin of François Boucher (1703–70), Rococo master, protégé of Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour and director of the Académie Royale. David’s neo-Classicism was the severe and geometric opposite of decorative Rococo and his politics were no less contrary. Arts dictator in the Revolution, he voted for the execution of Louis XVI and made reforms to the Académie. This neo-Classical masterpiece is typical in its Rococo renunciation, not least the emphasis on work, not play. only the ribbons tying her extravagantly long hair betray a trace of Rococo style.

David was the son of a Parisian haberdasher. At eight, he was sent to boarding school and then to board with a tutor, where he determined to be a painter. Boucher secured him a place at 18 in the studio of Joseph-Marie Vien, a prelude to the Académie. Like Boucher, he won a Rome scholarship. He was elected a member in 1784.’

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The aristocrat Lavoisier is ‘the father of modern chemistry’. He recognised and named oxygen (1778) and hydrogen (1783), categorised the elements and even helped construct the metric system. His wife, 15 years his junior, was his ‘muse and assistant’. she had lessons from David, hence the drawing portfolio, and arranged this portrait, which cost her husband, who was also a financier, the colossal sum of 7,000 livres.

Lavoisier was guillotined, a fate David, despite imprisonment, miraculously escaped, although his final years were spent in Belgian exile following the defeat of his greatest patron, Napoleon. Mme Lavoisier also survived, despite bankruptcy, and briefly married another eminent scientist, the American-born, English and Bavarian domicile Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count von Rumford. Despite remarriage, she insisted on retaining Lavoisier’s name. she is buried in the Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise, where David’s heart, but not his body, is also buried.

This article was first published in Country Life, November 12, 2014

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