History Essay 1: Formal Analysis Essay Jacques-Louis David: Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife is an oil painting on canvas by Jacques-Louis David, a French painter, in 1788. It illustrates Antoine Lavoisier, a French nobleman and Chemist, and his wife Marie-Anne Lavoisier in his chemical laboratory. The two main characters are placed in the middle of the canvas. Lavoisier, the man on the right in black and ruffled long-sleeved white shirt inside, with quill pen on his right hand, stops himself from writing on a booklet and looks up to his wife and assistant, who is wearing a long loose yarn gown with a lace collar, decorated by a blue silk belt. She sides with her husband as her left hand placing on his shoulder, and left hand placing on the table. Since Madame Lavoisier is 13 years younger, her figure is portrayed with lighter colors, with a graceful smile on her face. Antoine Lavoisier, in contrast, looks slightly surprised on his wife’s action, but still contains an insignificant joyful expression. The table Antoine Lavoisier uses is covered by a red velvet tablecloth, with a pen stand and several scientific instruments being placed on the surface. There is a large round glass instrument on the button right corner of the image. Switching to the background, the contents have a darker tone compared to the main objects in front. The wall is built by two types of grey marble, while the wood-paneled floor is painted in dark brown. On the left side of the background, there is a chair with a black coat and a large sketchbook on it.

Even though the three main objects (the Lavoisier couple and the table) have colors that have strong contrast with each other, the colors are well balanced. A warm light comes from the up left of the scene when the painter portrayed them. As a result, the highlight is on Madame Lavoisier (the reflection on the wall can also prove the location of the light source), as the velvet tablecloth reflect a part of the light. Antoine Lavoisier is then brought slightly behind, since his cloth is the darkest in the front objects. The composition of the painting is skillful, as the straight line dividing the marble wall separate the painting horizontally, and it leads viewer’s eyes to the two figures on the center. Three classical pilasters are not painted with an even distance in-between; instead, the second pilaster is on top of Madame Lavoisier, and the distance between middle pilaster and left pilaster is shorter than that between middle pilaster and right pilaster. What is more, Antoine Lavoisier’s extended leg outside the tablecloth leads viewers to see Madame Lavoisier. The chemical glass instruments obviously have different and complex functions in that time period, which indicate Lavoisier’s identity as a chemist. The interior design in the room are gorgeous, and both of the Lavoisier couple’s clothes are in the current European fashion. These elements demonstrate Antoine Lavoisier’s high social status as a French nobleman.

Neoclassicism, opposite to Baroque and Rococo styles, seeks inspiration from ancient Rome and Greek classical art. Rather than using ornate patterns, it concentrates on portraying objects in simple styles. Born in Rome in 1760s, this style spread all over Europe in exaggerating speed. As the latest European country influenced by Neoclassicism, this style entered the public view in 1770s, and Jacques-Louis David was the pioneer French artist to adapt this style. With his study experience from the Prix de Rome, his classical style of painting has great influence in Neoclassical art. In this painting, the clothes and interior decoration are simple; however, viewers can see the wealth of Lavoisier family through the painter’s proficient technique of painting fabrics in high quality.

This painting is recognized as one of the most important portrait in 18th century for its perfect composition and informative content. Personal portrait is rare in France during this time period; what is more, Antoine Lavoisier was executed five years later in the French Revolution, and this painting is mostly the only oil-painted portrait of this significant celebrity in the development of chemical science. For these two reasons, the painting becomes valuable in western art.  It is currently exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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