Air, Art and the End of Alchemy: Part 2
September 2, 2014
The title plaque off to the side of the painting read as follows:
Jacques Louis David (Dah-veed)
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (Lav-wah-see-ay) (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836)
Oil on Canvas
Signed, dated and inscribed (lower left): L. David [faciebat]/parisiis anno/ 1788
I had heard of both the artist and the subject but I would have to wait until I returned to Boston to search through my library to understand fully what made these individuals so special. In the mean time I could “read” the painting to get some clues.
When an artist is trying to lead the eye of the observer through the narrative of the work, he or she can use some simple compositional methods to create a map directing the viewer through the flow of the painting while simultaneously attracting attention to points of interest along the way.
Today, we would just set up a nice selfie and be done with it. But I don’t think that would command the same respect, or entrance fees, as this David.
Actually, in Western Art, there are a number of forms that can be used individually or in groups to accomplish this goal. In the introduction of Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures: A Handbook for Students and Lovers of Art by Henry Rankin Poore (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, 1903) there is an awesome pen and ink drawing describing these forms.
Of all the choice available, I felt that this painting was using The Triangle Form; a stabilizing composition which gives the entire painting a firm, grounded feel; suggesting that the artist may have been trying to communicate that the Lavoisiers were of great, almost noble, importance.
Upon further examination, I noticed that there were many additional triangles in the painting which were in all likelihood trying to communicate a story about the couple beyond just their possible social standing.
The first and most obvious of these was a thinner, sharper triangle the first leg of which was a line formed by Mme. Lavoisier’s extended arm running down through a brightly highlighted thick crease in the dark crimson sateen table covering ending with some glassware on the floor. The second leg was formed, literally, by M. Lavoisier’s less-than-subtly balletically extended leg.
Taken together, the two triangles seem to be forming an arrow pointing toward the extra-large glass bubble flask lying on the ground.
Looking more closely, this flask is sealed with a finely crafted stopcock which gives all the appearances of being an extremely sophisticated piece of technology even by contemporary manufacturing standards.
This was no ordinary piece of blown glass.
As anyone who has ever watched Kung Fu Panda knows, according to Master Oogway “There are no accidents”. In order to create this work, David would have had to create a series of sketches, stretch out this gigantic canvas and painstaking paint the Lavoisier’s portrait using what were probably rare and difficult to obtain pigmented oils, all in order to casually add a fat piece of glass as decoration. I don’t think so..
All major lines of sight point to the flask on the ground. Why?