Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier as The Lovers

Antoine et Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier, linocut with collaged washi,
2018 by Ele Willoughby
All too often history of science, or the history of science as retold by scientists, neglects to mention women. One of the things I want to do with my series of prints about the history of science is put those excluded back into the story. Sometimes, the missing women are hiding in plain sight! Invited to create a piece inspired by the Lovers tarot card, I thought of French scientists Antoine Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794) and his wife Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier (20 January 1758 – 10 February 1836). Lavoisier is often referred to as the 'father' of modern chemistry, without any reference to his wife. Though many will be familiar with a image of the two, doing chemistry together. Their close friend, famed neo-Classical painter Jacques Louis David painted his Portrait of Anoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife in 1788. He also trained Marie-Anne Paulze in drawing and engraving, allowing her to accurately illustrate their experiements. And she most definitely appears in her own drawings and engravings documenting their work.

I hope considering them as a true (and loving team) is a more modern day interpretation of love and their history, as well as a more complete and accurate look at the development of chemistry. The couple, working closely together, modernized and quantified chemistry and the scientific method, recognized and named oxygen and hydrogen, explained the role that oxygen plays in combustion, helped modernize chemical nomenclature and discovered that mass is conserved in chemical reactions. While this has traditionally been described simply as Lavoisier's work modern scholarship points out that Paulze translated all his contemporaries, like Joseph Priestley and Henry Cavendish's manuscripts from English or Latin to French, took notes of all observations, illustrated all experimental set-ups, edited his reports and worked so closely with him we can't easily separate their roles. Perhaps most importantly, her translation of Richard Kirwan's 'Essay on Phlogiston and the Constitution of Acids' with her own footnotes pointing out all the errors in chemistry, convinced her husband to perform their own experiments, which ultimately disproved the popular but incorrect ideas about "phlogiston" (the supposed fire-like element released by substances during combustion) championed by George Stahl, and lead to the discovery of oxygen. Attributing everything to him alone is clearly not the full picture.

David - Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and His Wife.jpg
Portrait of Anoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wifeBy Jacques-Louis David - Metropolitan Museum of Art, online database:
entry 436106 (accession number: 1977.10), Public Domain, Link

While clearly a devoted couple, their history as lovers is a bit complicated, especially looking back with modern eyes. They married in 1771, when Lavoisier was about 28 and Paulze was merely 13! Child marriage is a horrifying prospect and remains a scourge today, but Lavoisier was in fact recruited by Marie-Anne's father Jacques Paulze to rescue her. Both men gained most of their income from the Ferme Générale (the General Farm), a private consortium which paid the Crown for the priviledge of gathering certain taxes. A powerful nobel and member of the consortium, the 50-year-old Count d'Amerval made a formal proposal of marriage to the 13 year old Marie-Anne Paulze, who considered him "a fool, an unfeeling rustic, and an ogre". Wishing to protect her from such a fate, Paulze asked his friend Lavoisier to marry her instead. He agreed, and the couple settled down at the Arsenal in Paris, where he was able to further pursue his growing interest in chemistry and build a state-of-the-art lab. Marie-Anne became interested in these scientific pursuits and soon joined him in the lab. She received formal training in the field from his friends and colleagues Jean Baptiste Michel Bucquet and Philippe Gingembre, and the couple spent most of their time in the lab. Marie-Anne also famously hosted scientific salons with luminaries of the day.

Work Lavoisier undertook to help fund their research, including his role with the Ferme Générale and the tobacco commission, tragically lead to his execution during the French Revolution. She fought to defend his legacy after he was executed. She organized and arranged for the publication of his Mémoires de chimie, including a preface she wrote attacking the revolutionairies she blamed for her husband's death. The book was published by her former lover P.S. du Pont; the idea that the successful marriage and partnership of the Lavoisiers could survive a 10 year affair (1781-1791) with du Pont is quite foreign to modern eyes, but there was little controversy when French nobles of the time took a lover. In fact, when Lavoisier died, her entrusted his wife to his friend du Pont's care. Due to the upheaval of the times, du Pont was unable to repay the money he borrowed from her for his printing venture, and she pursued her financial claim against him and his son for years. The du Ponts moved to the United States, prospered*, repaid their dept and finally published Lavoisier's memoirs of chemistry.

This engraving by Mme Lavoisier shows one of their experiments in human respiration. She is clearly the one recording their data and documenting the experimental set-up on the right.
This drawing by Mme Lavoisier shows one of their experiments in human respiration. She is clearly the one recording their data and documenting the experimental set-up on the right.

Mme Lavoisier kept his name for the rest of her life, even during her short-lived second marriage to physicist Sir Benjamin Thomson, Count Rumford. She dumped Rumford as soon as she realized that he did not intend for her to work alongside him in the lab, or respect her Independence as she was accustomed. One of the best physicists of the day who revolutionized our understanding of heat, Thomson fled the U.S., abandoning his first wife after supporting the British side during the American Revolution. He was knighted by George III and made a count after moving to Bavaria, by the Holy Roman Empire. After the death of his estranged wife, he was attracted to the wealthy widow Paulze-Lavoisier, who travelled in the best scientific circles, and saw her wealth as a means of funding his research. Despite a four-year courtship, they soon found they were a bad match. They married in 1805 and separated in 1809.**

I draw on a variety of the aspects of historical tarot cards in my print. I've included the word "L'Amoureux" in French, for this French couple. I chose them, not only as a loving historical scientific couple, but because the card is associated with flames and the element of air. The Lavoisiers studied air and were the ones who really showed that air was not an element (in the modern chemical sense) by isolating various constituent gases like oxygen, and debunking the earlier phlogiston theory. I have specifically shown them with their famous phlogiston experiment apparatus. Further, not only did they recognize the role that oxygen played in combustion, Lavoisier and his friend Pierre-Simon Laplace also recognized that the process of respiration was in fact a slow, controlled combustion - hence the image of the lungs with flames (which is also an allusion to the flaming heart symbol and iconography).

The prints are 7.5" x 12.5" with an image area of 5" x 8.3". Each are printed on Japanese kozo paper, with collaged pink lungs and patterned vest.

As a printmaker, documenting the history of science with relief prints, I love that Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier also documented science with relief prints.

* His son Éleuthère, trained by Lavoisier as a chemist, opened a gun-powder manufacturing plant which ultimately became one of the biggest and most successful US companies, DuPont.

**One famous story about the ill-fated Rumford-Lavoisier marriage: annoyed that she had invited many guests without seeking his permission he locked their gate and removed the key. So, she spoke with her guests through the gate and then poured boiling water on his prized flowers. (see 'Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century' by Marlene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham).


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