RECENT POSTS

Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, Her Contributions to Chemistry, and the David Portrait



Modern science, particularly chemistry, owes much to Antoine Lavoisier, the 18th-century chemist who discovered oxygen gas and helped to develop the basis of the modern chemical nomenclature. However, Lavoisier owes much of his own success to his wife and partner, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier. Born in 1758 to a wealthy lawyer and financier, who had garnered considerable wealth from the French General Farm, Paulze Lavoisier was educated in a convent until she was 13.[1] At that age, the Count d’Amerval, then 50 years old, asked to marry Marie-Anne, and in an effort to avoid that match, Marie-Anne’s father married her to his 28-year-old colleague at the General Farm, Antoine Lavoisier.[2]


Marie-Anne was a gifted artist, and had learned to paint under famous French painter Jacques-Louis David, who painted a famous portrait of the Lavoisier couple.[3] Paulze Lavoisier sketched her husband’s experiments and drew diagrams for his books, and contributed images to his notebooks.[4] Equally important, Marie-Anne spoke and read English, which Antoine did not.[5] This allowed her to translate scientific works and letters from English men of science, many of whom were instrumental in the support of the phlogiston theory of combustion so that Antoine could rebuke their arguments and prove his theory of combustion, including the existence of what we call oxygen.[6]


When the French Revolution began, the wealthy Lavoisiers were a target, particularly considering Antoine’s main income was from collecting taxes for the General Farm.[7] Antoine was arrested during the Terror, during which Marie-Anne worked to gain his release, before being arrested herself, though she was quickly released.[8] Antoine was executed in May of 1794, and after his death Marie-Anne worked tirelessly to maintain his work and legacy, editing and privately printing his last works.[9]


During the Directory period and the reign of Napoleon, Marie-Anne resumed her role as salon hostess, proving that her central place in French scientific circles continued even without her husband.[10] Marie-Anne eventually married Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, another man of science who she was familiar with through her position in the scientific society, though they ultimately separated after four years.[11] During her second marriage, Marie-Anne amassed an impressive and note-worthy collection of music, which Rebecca Cypess argues was an integral part of her role in the social scene at the time.[12]


Marie-Anne has become a figure of interest to researchers of late, including being featured on the site “Women You Should Know” in 2020 and earlier this year by “Chemistry World,” the publication of the British Royal Society of Chemistry. However, to those outside of the study of the history of science, the Lavoisiers are best known from their portrait painted by Jacques Louis David in 1788, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. [13] David, famous for his neoclassical works like “The Death of Marat” and “The Oath of the Horatii,” was a friend of the Lavoisiers and, like the couple, highly involved in French society at the time. The portrait centers Marie-Anne, rather than Antoine, who looks up at her in admiration, away from his scientific instruments and lab notes that lay in front of him. Both are elegantly dressed, emblematic of their high social standing, and Marie-Anne makes eye contact with the viewer, perhaps showing her role as hostess and socialite, as she invites us to conversation. Recent scientific analysis of the painting has revealed that it originally had notes in front of Antoine, rather than his instruments, and Marie-Anne wearing a large hat, showcasing the purposeful decision, either by the couple or David, to show themselves as people of science, rather than people of wealth.[14]

[1] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [2] “Marie-Anne Lavoisier,” History of Scientific Women, accessed Feb. 11 2022, https://scientificwomen.net/women/lavoisier-marie-anne-54. [3] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [4] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [5] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [6] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [7] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [8] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [9] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [10] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [11] Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography, “Lavoisier, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze,” s.v. [12] Rebecca Cypess, “Madame Lavoisier's Music Collection: Lessons from a Private Library of the Nineteenth Century,” Notes 77, no. 2 (2020). [13] Jacques-Louis David, “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and Marie Anne Lavoisier (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836),” The Met, The Metropolitian Museum of Art, 1788, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436106. [14] Silvia Centeno, Dorothy Mahon, Frederico Caro and David Pullins “Discovering the evolution of Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier,” Heritage Science 9, no. 1 (2021).

SEARCH BY TAGS
ARCHIVE