Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier is known today as the founder of modern chemistry, for his pioneering studies of oxygen, gunpowder, and the chemical composition of water. In 1789, his theories were published in the influential `Traité Elementaire de Chimie’. The illustrations in this book were prepared by his wife, who is believed to have studied with the great neo-classical painter Jacques Louis David, who famously portrayed them both, (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Marie-Anne-Pierrette Paulze was only thirteen when her father, a fermier-générale (tax collector for the royal government), married her to the twenty-eight-year-old Lavoisier who had inherited a fortune at the age of five with the passing of his mother.
The couple’s income and social standing largely came from Lavoisier’s own position of fermier-générale, which eventually led to his execution at the guillotine in 1794, during the French Revolution. His work as a scientist was brushed aside as he was primarily tried as an `enemy of the people’. It did not help Lavoisier’s cause that he also sat on a number of aristocratic committees that were deemed to have been established to maintain their standard of living at the expense of the poor, ironically at the same time that he used his scientific findings to push for better public health in the towns and cities, particularly in crowded poorer conurbations.
Lavoisier’s main protagonist though was Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793), a leading figure in the so-called Reign of Terror. In previous years, Lavoisier had publicly belittled an invention of Marat’s and his arrest gave Marat the opportunity he needed for revenge, portraying Lavoisier as a man who, as an investor in the Ferme Générale, had bled white the poor. It is probable that once arrested Lavoisier had little chance of avoiding the guillotine and appeals for his life were ignored. A revolutionary judge stated that Revolutionary France had no need for scientists and he was executed on May 8th 1794.
This bust is a workshop version of that originally crafted by Aurelio (Karl Aurelius) Micheli (1834-1908). Micheli was a sculptor and a member of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, 1860-70. He specialised in portrait busts of notable individuals particularly historical figures, these being produced by the plaster workshop of the Micheli Brothers in collaboration with the Gipsformeri at the Staatliche Museum, Berlin.