Dipped into the Metropolitan today to see some of my old favorites. Why do I love these reliefs so? The inscriptions relate the insufferable and ceaseless bragging of the Great King. “I fought, I killed, I conquered, I slew…etc. etc.” Perhaps it has something to do with a different sort of Magic Kingdom, the one to which I was occasionally vouchafed a visit in my southern Californian childhood, the original Disneyland. On the freeway ride there my eyes were always diverted by this outlandish structure shown below: It’s the Samson Tire Factory, built in the late 1920’s.
Whenever I am at the Met, I always make it a point to take a few minutes to pay my respects to the founder of modern chemistry, painted with his wife by Jacques-Louis David.
Antoine Lavoisier was a minor noble, and a very great scientist. He was among the most liberal of the pre-revolutionary elite, and he was guillotined in The Terror for his pains. (He had held the post of chief tax farmer for the king.) I was thinking today that this picture shows only one of the couple having their portrait painted. Madame is posing, looking out at us, but he is busy working at his desk. You can just hear her, “Dear, Monsieur David is here to paint our picture. Please stop your work a moment, as important as it is.” He hears something, looks up, over his shoulder, “Ah yes, my dear. So sorry, I forgot all about it…Now where was I..?” He is busy with his intellectual business, she performs the crucial domestic support function of a loyal and loving wife, the perfect pair.
In fact, Madame was an accomplished if unacknowledged researcher on her own, and her contribution to Monsieur’s work is now recognized as having been very important. She, however, escaped death during the revolution. Madison Smartt Bell has written a very nice short biography – Lavoisier in the Year One – the title of which nicely captures that good old apocalyptic spirit of revolution that I love so well. He does a better job of explaining the unravelling of the weird and complicated pre-modern theories of chemistry demolished by Lavoisier than a mere novelist has a right to do, although he confided to me in an email that he did commit an error that no one but a chemist friend had noticed.