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Mme. Lavoisier

Roald Hoffmann

Her Husband's Helpmeet, and After

Mme. Lavoisier ran a popular salon, to be sure. But from early on in her marriage she took instruction in chemistry to help her husband in his work. She learned to read English to translate important books from a language Lavoisier lacked. Mme. Lavoisier learned to draw from Jacques-Louis David. His expensively commissioned portrait of the couple (published in American Scientist, January–February 1996) tells us of their relationship. The two are physically close, her arm rests on his shoulder. But there is a distance between them. To me there is also a certain tension in the leaning posture of Mme. Lavoisier—am I imagining that she is pressing in, and would like to enter Lavoisier's realm of instruments in the right-hand part of the picture? Lavoisier looks at his wife—she looks out as us, at the world. They had no children.Figure 3. Mme. Lavoisier meticulously depicted . . .Click to Enlarge Image

After her husband's death, Mme. Lavoisier herself spent 65 days in jail. Emerging, she recovered his confiscated books and kept his works in print. Long loved by Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, she rejected him. In 1805 she married the American/ British/Bavarian adventurer, inventor and scientist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. The marriage was an unhappy one—it's reported that she poured boiling water on his flowers—and ended four years later. Mme. Lavoisier lived on until 1836.

There is no biography of Mme. Lavoisier. I think she deserves an opera.

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