The Portrait Of Monsieur Lavoisier And His Wife Of 1788 Essay

The Portrait Of Monsieur Lavoisier And His Wife Of 1788 Essay

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Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier and his Wife of 1788 is a stark departure from his better-known history genre paintings. While this dual portrait is still painted according to neoclassical aesthetics, it is ideologically distinct from most of David’s oeuvre. David’s most praised paintings revolve around male figures and involve masculine duty. However this portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier, a renowned scientist of 18th century France, and his wife instead focuses in on the woman and explores the changing role of women in French society.
David uses division of space as a means to enter into this discourse on gender roles. He characteristically defines the space with the use of strong lines. The horizontals and verticals of the wall contrast against the central diagonals created by Monsieur Lavoisier’s leg, the fold in the tablecloth, and Madame Lavoisier’s arm. The room of the portrait is rather spare. Classical columns break up the composition into two segments defined by blank marble backgrounds. The right segment of the picture is filled by Monsieur Lavoisier himself and his technical equipment; it resembles a typical laboratory. On the left, the smaller of the two sections, there is merely a neoclassical chair with a portable portfolio and a jacket thrown casually over the armrest. David does not make explicit the setting of the portrait. Besides the desk with various work equipment and the lone chair in the background, there are no other direct signifiers of location. The space could just as easily be his laboratory as it could be his workspace at home. The compartmentalization of scientific equipment in the right section and the more casual chair with papers and a flung coat on the left seem to represent t...


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... David is getting at. Socially, the role of women at the time was in a state of flux. Yes, modern feminism won’t be articulated until the mid 19th century, but there was still a society-wide rejection of tradition beginning to come about, as exemplified by the impending national revolt and the Revolutionary War abroad in the Americas.
David’s Portrait of Monsieur Lavoisier articulates this forthcoming shift of gender roles through his unexpected depiction of a wealthy husband and wife. Through formal elements like the use of line and color, David gives Madame Lavoisier a particular authority without compromising her femininity. He gives this idea of feminine power immediacy with this dual portrait, which was both unprecedented and of supreme importance for the eventual (although short lived) drive for women rights that would come about after the French revolution.

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