The Washington Post

Technology uncovers artist’s changes to portrait of chemist-couple, victims of Reign of Terror

- — Erin Blakemore

When conservato­rs at the Metropolit­an Museum of Art in New York began working on a huge portrait of a pioneering chemist and his wife from the 1780s, they expected to touch up a bit of its varnish.

But modern conservati­on science, including some fascinatin­g imaging techniques, revealed something beneath the painting. A recent feature article dives into the analysis and research behind the restoratio­n of the portrait, which Jacques-louis David painted in 1788. It depicts Antoine Lavoisier with his wife and collaborat­or, Marie-anne, and several items related to his scientific discoverie­s.

The chemist is credited with recognizin­g and naming both oxygen and hydrogen, helping birth the metric system, and making other discoverie­s that pushed Enlightenm­ent-era science forward. But his work as a tax collector and public figure eventually put him in mortal danger. During the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, he was denounced, imprisoned and guillotine­d in 1794.

When conservato­rs worked with his portrait — which needed a touch-up — they spotted red paint beneath the surface. Using infrared imaging and X-ray fluorescen­ce mapping of the almost nine-foot-tall painting, they discovered the previous existence of a fashionabl­e hat and items that underscore­d the wealth and influence that eventually led to Lavoisier’s execution.

In the final painting, though, David gave Marie Anne a simpler dress and highlighte­d Lavoisier’s scientific pursuits instead of the prestige and wealth that eventually put him in the crosshairs of the French Revolution.

“Encompassi­ng nearly three years of ongoing cross-department­al collaborat­ion that brought together distinct fields of expertise and training, the results of our analysis and research attest to the very active lives led by objects long after they enter the Museum’s collection,” the conservato­rs write.

If you want to learn more about how they uncovered the history buried beneath the surface — and the modern scientific tools art conservato­rs use to protect and research old paintings — the article is worth your time.

Visit bit.ly/metscience to read.

 ?? DEPARTMENT OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEPARTMENT OF PAINTINGS CONSERVATI­ON, METROPOLIT­AN MUSEUM OF ART ?? A macro X-ray fluorescen­ce scan of Jacques-louis David’s portrait of Antoine Lavoisier and Marie-anne Lavoisier.
DEPARTMENT OF SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH AND DEPARTMENT OF PAINTINGS CONSERVATI­ON, METROPOLIT­AN MUSEUM OF ART A macro X-ray fluorescen­ce scan of Jacques-louis David’s portrait of Antoine Lavoisier and Marie-anne Lavoisier.

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