Hats Off for the History of Science: Rethinking the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Claims about the Lavoisier Portrait

By Meghan Roberts

The Metropolitan Museum of Art began September with a bang. After three years of examination by conservation scientists, they announced that they had discovered secrets lurking under the surface of Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier (1788). Lavishly wealthy thanks to tax farming, the two are best known today for their scientific work in chemistry, and the iconic painting focuses on their collaboration.[1]

Jacques-Louis David, Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, 1788. Oil on canvas. See Silvia A. Centeno, Dorothy Mahon, and David Pullins, “Refashioning the Lavoisiers: A team of experts from across the Met gains new understanding of Jacques Louis David’s iconic portrait,” September 1, 2021.

The version so well known today features an elegant couple surrounded by the trappings of their scientific work, but the earlier version revealed by the Museum’s sleuthing was decidedly flashier. Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier had once sported a trendy hat with a matching sash; Antoine-Laurent had been wrapped in a decadent red mantle.[2] More surprisingly, the scientific instruments arranged artfully on the desk were not there in David’s first draft, nor was Marie-Anne’s sketch pad. A bookcase full of somber tomes was later removed. These exciting discoveries will provide much grist for scholarly mills. 

But what of the initial conclusions the Museum team has drawn about these changes, which they insist fundamentally change how we should think about the Lavoisiers and their scientific work? In The Burlington Magazine, David Pullins, Dorothy Mahon, and Silvia A. Centeno claim these changes prove that the couple made an “about-face from fashion to science.”[3] In an article in Heritage Science, Centeno, Mahon, Federico Carò, and Pullins claim that this sudden identity crisis was a response to the “quickly changing historical circumstance in which the artist and his sitters found themselves on the brink of the French Revolution.”[4]These claims call for greater scrutiny. Considering the revisions from the perspective of the history of science on the eve of the Revolution suggests other, more nuanced interpretations of the changes made to the portrait. 

To start with the question of the Lavoisiers’ social identity, the Museum’s team grounds their analysis in a series of binaries: were the Lavoisiers tax farmers or scientists, fashionable or useful, socially aspirant or serious? But Pullins et al. would do well to recall Linda Colley’s famous words: “Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time.”[5] Colley’s statement holds especially true for eighteenth-century France. It’s hard to imagine anyone who took science more seriously than the Lavoisiers, but they shifted easily from one social space to another. Antoine-Laurent was always, at the same time, an extremely wealthy tax farmer and a preeminent scientist. His wife was a gracious host and a valuable scientific collaborator. The Lavoisiers did not choose to be rich and powerful tax farmers or serious and public-minded scientists; they were all those things at once. Indeed, by highlighting the expensive instruments used for Antoine-Laurent’s research and showing that both Monsieur and Madame had the time for scientific research, the revised portrait still made a powerful statement about the Lavoisiers’ wealth. The Lavoisiers’ different social roles did not just co-exist; they overlapped. That Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier was wearing a very fashionable hat in David’s first version of the painting does not change that, and to assert otherwise oversimplifies how identities worked in Old Regime France.[6]

The Museum team largely focuses on David as the presumed driver of these changes.[7] But, if anyone was going to demand substantial revisions to their portrait, it would have been the Lavoisiers. The couple, particularly Marie-Anne, managed their public reputations carefully and were especially attentive to the images they produced of themselves and their work.[8] In addition to her invaluable work as a translator, illustrator, and secretary, Marie-Anne acted as a kind of public relations specialist avant la lettre. While women like Lavoisier often worked behind the scenes and have all-too-often been ignored as serious intellectual actors, they had a decisive impact on the Enlightenment through their work as translators, patrons, and hosts. It is not only likely that Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier had a decisive role in revising the portrait, but also true that doing so constituted a crucial form of intellectual engagement that we should not gloss over. 

Drawing upon these contexts, I would like to advance a different interpretation of the changes made to the portrait. Perhaps the Lavoisiers were displeased with David’s first version of the portrait and felt it played up one facet of their identity (as rich, stylish tax farmers) at the expense of other elements that they valued just as much (their scientific work). Rather than interpreting this discovery as revealing one identity as more valuable than the others, I argue that the changes underscore how much it mattered to the Lavoisiers that they come across as rich and scientific, fashionable and serious, learned and affectionate. David made the changes to the portrait almost immediately: he began work in 1787 and the changes were in place by 1788. Such an immediate change of direction makes it hard to sustain the interpretation that this is about shifting identities on the eve of the Revolution; David may have simply misread his clients and what they wanted.[9] And clearly these changes mattered a lot to the Lavoisiers, who were willing to pay an exorbitant price (7000 livres, an absolute fortune!) to realize them.[10]

The Museum, however, sees a different force at work: the French Revolution. Reading backwards from the fact that David opted not to show the portrait at the 1789 Salon and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier’s execution alongside other tax farmers in 1794, Pullins et al. argue that the changes were intended to protect the Lavoisiers from a revolutionary backlash. But a lot changed between 1787-88 and 1789, and 1794 was a whole new world. To assume that David and the Lavoisiers sensed the coming storm in 1787 and took action to protect themselves seems difficult to sustain. 

Furthermore, Lavoisier’s science was not uncontroversial. He was a proponent of what Bruno Belhoste has called “severe science,” characterized by exact measurements and highly precise scientific instruments. While Antoine-Laurent’s attention to detail was admirable, his audiences sometimes found it, well, dull.[11] Marie-Anne, widely praised as an entertaining host who impressed her guests with her command of scientific matters, was an essential asset in making Antoine-Laurent’s work more palatable to the public. Indeed, David’s revisions more obviously associate Antoine-Laurent’s scientific work with his beautiful wife, who is the prominent figure in both versions. In other words, the criticisms levied at Antoine-Laurent’s scientific work, not his tax farming, may well have inspired the changes.  

In short, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s discovery poses many new questions about the history of art, science, and politics on the eve of the French Revolution. Unfortunately, their analysis of their findings too often veers into simplistic or teleological claims, claiming that the Lavoisiers had been one thing and transformed into another due to the French Revolution. What I’ve tried to do here is insist on the opposite: that the Museum’s findings underscore how wonderfully complicated and interconnected these categories were at the end of the Old Regime. 

Meghan Roberts is a historian of eighteenth-century France with particular interests in cultural history, the history of science and medicine, and women’s and gender history. She published her first book, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France, with the University of Chicago Press in 2016. She is currently working on a book about medical practitioners in the Atlantic World. You can find her on Twitter @MeghanKRoberts.

Title image: Jacques Louis David, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie Anne Lavoisier (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836), 1788.

Further Readings:

Francesca Antonelli, “Scrittura, sociabilità e strategie di persuasione : Marie-Anne Paulze-Lavoisier, secrétaire (1758-1836)”, PhD Diss. (Paris, EHESS- l’Univerità degli studi di Bologna, 2021).

Bruno Belhoste, Paris Savant: Capital of Science in the Age of Enlightenment, trans. Susan Emanuel (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Marco Beretta, Imaging a Career in Science: The Iconography of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (Science History Publications, 2001).

Pierre Poirier, La science et l’amour : Madame Lavoisier (Paris: Pygmalion, 2004).

Meghan Roberts, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Mary Vidal, “David among the Moderns: Art, Science, and the Lavoisiers,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56, no. 4 (October 1995). 

Author bio

Meghan K. Roberts is associate professor of history at Bowdoin College. She works on the history of eighteenth-century France, with particular attention to the histories of science, medicine, and women and gender. 

[1] Many thanks to Jessica Fripp for reading a draft of this essay and helping me refine my thinking about this discovery.

[2] Feminist historians of marriage have long debated how to refer to individuals without resorting to the traditional practice of giving the husband the family name (in this case, Lavoisier) and the wife either her first name or the title “Madame.” Following Anne Verjus and Denise Davidson, I refer to both Lavoisiers by their first names. Anne Verjus and Denise Davidson, Le roman conjugal. Chroniques de la vie familiale à l’époque de la Révolution et de l’Empire (Seyssel : Champ Vallon, 2011). 

[3] David Pullins, Dorothy Mahon, and Silvia A. Centeno, “The Secrets of a Revolutionary Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 163, no. 1422 (September 2021), 788. 

[4] Silvia A. Centeno et al., “Discovering the Evolution of Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier,” Heritage Science 9, no. 1 (December 2021), 11.

[5] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, 5th ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 6.

[6] Indeed, neither the Lavoisiers’ wealth nor Antoine-Laurent’s work as a tax farmer has been ignored by art historians; to the contrary, Mary Vidal noted in an important article on the portrait that art historians once placed so much emphasis on those facets of his life that he resembled a “made-for-Hollywood role of a quasi-villain.” Mary Vidal, “David among the Moderns: Art, Science, and the Lavoisiers,” Journal of the History of Ideas 56, no. 4 (October 1995), 595-623, 599. 

[7] Apart from a brief discussion of Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier’s role in managing their image towards the end of the article. Pullins et al, “Secrets of a Revolutionary Portrait,” 790-791. 

[8] Among many works on Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, see Vidal, “David among the Moderns,” 611-612; Marco Beretta, Imaging a Career in Science: The Iconography of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (Science History Publications, 2001), chapter 3; Meghan K. Roberts, Sentimental Savants: Philosophical Families in Enlightenment France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 45-53, 151-153.

[9] That, some years later, David struggled to satisfy another female patron (Juliette Racamier) and famously left her portrait unfinished also seems relevant here. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David After the Terror (Yale University Press, 1999), 236-239. Interestingly, Lajer-Burcharth draws a contrast between the unfinished Racamier portrait with the successfully completed portrait of the Lavoisiers; perhaps the difference between the two is not so stark as it once seemed. 

[10] The substantial changes might explain the price, as Pullins et al. argue. Pullins et. al, “The Secrets of a Revolutionary Portrait,” 780.

[11] Bruno Belhoste, Paris Savant: Capital of Science in the Age of Enlightenment, trans. Susan Emanuel (Oxford University Press, 2019), 196.

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