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