Lavoisier, Marie (1758–1836)

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Lavoisier, Marie (1758–1836)

French scientific collaborator of her husband Antoine Lavoisier, the founder of modern chemistry. Name variations: Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze; comtesse de Rumford; countess of Rumford; Madame de Rumford. Born Marie Anne Pierrette (also seen as Pierette) Paulze in 1758; died on February 10, 1836; daughter of Jacques Paulze and Claudine (Thoynet) Paulze; had three brothers; married Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794), the founder of modern chemistry, in 1771; married Benjamin Thomson, count of Rumford, in October 1805.

In an arranged marriage, Marie Lavoisier and Antoine Lavoisier enjoyed a relationship which developed into a successful scientific collaboration, but they were caught up in one of the most dramatic events in modern European history. Marie survived the French Revolution, which cost her husband his life, but was imprisoned for several months at the height of the Terror.

The 1788 dual portrait of the Lavoisiers by the great French painter Jacques Louis David, now in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, enlivens a moment in time of historic importance to modern civilization. The painting was completed only months before Antoine published his crowning scientific achievement in February 1789, Traité élémentaire de chimie (Elementary Treatise on Chemistry), the volume which laid the foundations of modern chemistry. The portrait gives every sign of presenting not Antoine Lavoisier as its leading figure, but rather his wife, who occupies the foreground of the canvas and is shown as small, somewhat plump, with a long, straight nose and lips that are tightly closed. In contrast to Marie, whose pose has been called protective and maternal toward her husband, Antoine, a wealthy and powerful member of the new nobility, is depicted as diffident and even docile. Some see the portrait as an indicator of the painter David's growing anti-establishment attitudes; others ask if it hints at tensions beneath the surface of a couple known to be close. Regardless, the portrait reveals two major figures in the intellectual life of France as they wished to be seen, at a time when their nation was poised on the brink of revolution.

Both Marie and Antoine Lavoisier were born into the highest reaches of the French bourgeoisie. Marie's father Jacques Paulze was director of the royal tobacco commission. After her mother Claudine Thoynet Paulze 's death, Marie was brought back to Paris from the convent where she had been sent for her education and served as hostess of her father's lavish entertainments. With her striking blue eyes, brown hair, and perfect complexion, she was both feminine and charming by age 13.

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier was born in Paris in 1743, more than a decade before Marie. He was a handsome man whose papers were brilliant analyses of various scientific problems, including the nature of thunder, the aurora, and the then still-prevalent belief, which he refuted, that by means of repeated distillation water was converted into earth. Where science was concerned, he was the man to watch in French intellectual life. By the time of his marriage to Marie, he would also be a wealthy man, having become a full titular member of the Ferme Générale (General Farm), the lucrative system of taxation carried on by a few privileged families on behalf of the French crown. Antoine's scientific interests left him little time to mix with fashionable women but through Jacques Paulze, who was also a member of the General Farm, Antoine met his daughter Marie. Antoine (15 years her senior) felt at ease in the company of the 13-year-old, who despite her age listened with interest as he talked about his scientific projects and displayed her musical talents on the harp and harpsichord while they spent many evenings in each other's company.

There was, however, another with interest in marrying Marie. The count of Amerval, a relatively impoverished 50-year-old aristocrat, hoped that by marrying her he would enter into a union that would be to his financial advantage. Marie's mother's uncle, the Abbé Terray, who was controller general of finance and the individual in charge of the General Farm tax system that provided the Paulze family's wealth, attempted to pressure Jacques to approve the marriage. Revealing the independent spirit that would characterize her long life, Marie called Amerval "a fool, an unfeeling rustic and an ogre." Jacques refused to grant permission for his daughter's marriage to a much older (and financially pinched) suitor, despite the fact that by doing so he risked losing his lucrative post as tobacco commission director. Jacques kept his job and, to forestall more meddling by his powerful uncle-in-law, he made clear his approval of Marie's marriage to Antoine.

The marriage contract, which was signed on December 4, 1771, stipulated that Marie would bring a dowry of 80,000 livres ($3,200,000). The groom brought much greater wealth into the marriage, which guaranteed that the couple's annual income would be about 20,000 livres ($800,000), providing for a life of considerable luxury. After their marriage ceremony (which took place on December 16, 1771, in the chapel of the Hôtel des Finances on the rue Neuve des Petits Champs), the couple moved into a house bought for them by Antoine's father on the fashionable rue Neuve des Bons Enfants, near the gardens of the Royal Palace. Antoine's father then bought him a title of nobility in 1772.

Although Marie was very likely pregnant in 1774, the couple remained childless. This allowed Marie, who was interested in her husband's scientific work, both the time and energy to assist him in his research. By 1775, when Marie was 17, she was already being referred to in correspondence as Antoine Lavoisier's "philosophical wife." By 1777, she was being tutored in chemistry by her husband's disciple and collaborator Jean Baptiste Bucquet. She learned English, a language her husband would never master, and translated many chemical works for him not only from English but also from other languages. Of her published translations, the most important is Richard Kirwan's 1787 Essay on Phlogiston, which appeared in Paris during 1788 and includes a few notes by Marie as well as commentaries by her husband and other French chemists who effectively refuted Kirwan's erroneous theories. She also studied drawing with the painter Jacques Louis David and made sketches of the Lavoisier laboratory.

One of her most important achievements was her assistance to Antoine in the preparation of the plates for his epoch-making book, Elementary Treatise on Chemistry (1789). She was often in his laboratory, assisting him by recording his scientific observations in large registers that served as raw data for his articles and books. An enthusiastic conversationalist and correspondent as well as a competent editor, Marie Lavoisier played a major role as an effective disseminator for the doctrines of the new chemistry that grew out of her husband's experiments.

After the couple moved to an apartment in the Arsenal where Antoine held the post of Régisseur des Poudres that placed him in charge of the French monarchy's production of gunpowder, Marie often presided over intellectual soireés, to which were invited many of Paris'

most brilliant scientists and artists. A testament to the intensity with which the couple carried out their scientific pursuits, their laboratory was immediately adjacent to their apartment. Often working together with Marie, Antoine arose at six in the morning and worked until eight; they returned to the laboratory in the evenings, working there from seven until ten. At least one full day of the week—"the day of happiness"—was devoted entirely to scientific experiments.

In addition to the hours spent investigating the basic mysteries of chemistry in their laboratory, much of Antoine's time went to his job as director of the state gunpowder administration. When he took over the newly established agency in 1775, France was producing less than half of its annual requirements of gunpowder. Antoine's thorough reforms of the organization brought rapid improvements, and, by the time the American Revolution began in 1776, the French found it possible to supply the American rebels with sufficient powder to continue their resistance against the British crown. As quantities increased, prices dropped, and the quality of the gunpowder also improved markedly. Antoine wrote with pride in April 1789: "One can truly say that North America owes its independence to French gunpowder." He was often assisted and encouraged by Marie while carrying out this work, which at times proved life-threatening. In October 1788, while both of them were in a mill observing the grinding of a new type of gunpowder, the mill exploded, killing one of the organization's directors and a young woman standing nearby. Both Lavoisiers had been positioned behind a barrier at the time and consequently were not injured.

The Lavoisiers were in no immediate danger at the start of the French Revolution in the spring of 1789. In fact, Antoine's public record, as a highly respected government administrator and scientist as well as an advocate of economic and social reform, was exemplary. He had started a model farm to demonstrate the advantages of the latest techniques of scientific agriculture as early as 1778, was a member of the provincial assembly of Orleans, and participated in various schemes of local improvements, and during the famine of 1788 advanced money without interest to several towns for the purchase of barley to alleviate suffering. Once the revolution began, he was called on to participate in various reform efforts, including the creation of a new system of taxation, and served on committees overseeing changes in public education, public hygiene, coinage, and the casting of cannon. He was also a leading member of the commission appointed to create a system of uniform weights and measures, a reform effort that resulted in the establishment of the metric system.

At first optimistic in his assessment of the revolution, in a letter dated February 5, 1790, Antoine Lavoisier informed his American friend and fellow scientist Benjamin Franklin that as far as he could judge, he regarded "our Revolution … as completed." From the very start of the revolution, however, the situation in Paris was precarious for members of the privileged elite classes like the Lavoisiers. In early August 1789, after a boat loaded with gunpowder was seen being prepared to leave the quay on the Seine near the Arsenal, suspicious local residents became convinced that this was evidence that the Régisseurs des Poudres were trying to deny the Paris populace access to gunpowder, thus threatening their ability to defend their newly acquired freedoms. A mob formed at the Arsenal demanding the arrest of Antoine and one of his colleagues, both of whom were taken to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). Fortunately for Antoine, he secured his release with a sufficiently convincing explanation of the situation, which was that the boat contained low-grade gunpowder for export, and another vessel, loaded with high-grade powder, was soon expected to arrive on the Seine from the factory at Essonnes. This began to calm frayed tempers, and after another tense day, when both Antoine and Marie found themselves to be virtual prisoners at the Arsenal, the mob dispersed.

During these increasingly troubled years, Antoine, assisted by Marie, continued to carry out his scientific investigations. Two sketches made by her (1790 and 1791) show experiments on human respiration and are of both artistic and scientific interest. No doubt because she had studied with Jacques Louis David, Marie Lavoisier's sketches depict her husband in bold Davidian poses that celebrate political republicanism as much as they depict prosaic scientific reality. Her sketches illustrate the ways in which politically inspired modes of representation could also be utilized when depicting other, quite different, forms of human activity.

By 1792, with the rapidly increasing radicalization of the French Revolution, Antoine Lavoisier had become an object of suspicion. As a Tax Farmer and prominent member of the Ferme Générale, he was linked to one of the most hated aspects of the Old Regime's discredited system of privilege and exploitation. Even his many years of work at the Arsenal as head of the government gunpowder monopoly were now open to criticism. The politician Jean Paul Marat accused Antoine of putting the city of Paris in prison as well as impeding the city's air circulation by means of the mur d'octroi (toll-house wall) erected at his suggestion in 1787. In August 1792, the Lavoisiers had to leave their apartment and laboratory at the Arsenal because mob violence made living there unsafe. In November of that year, the revolutionary government of the Convention ordered the arrest of the former Farmers General. Antoine was tried by the revolutionary tribunal at the height of the Terror in May 1794, and the perfunctory proceedings against him and 31 others took only a few hours to conclude. Of the 32 tried, 28 were found guilty and sentenced to death. In the afternoon of the same day, May 8, 1794, Antoine and the others who had been convicted, including Marie's father Jacques Paulze, were guillotined at the Place de la Revolution, now the Place de la Concorde. Without ceremony, the victims were buried in anonymous graves in the cemetery of the Parc Monceaux. The following day, Joseph Lagrange remarked: "It required only a moment to sever that head, and perhaps a century will not be sufficient to produce another like it."

Soon after the execution of her husband and father, Marie Lavoisier was arrested and jailed along with other heirs of dead Tax Farmers. Two months later, she wrote abjectly to her local revolutionary committee to declare her belief in the ideals and principles of the revolution and the French Republic. By this time, the dictator Maximillien Robespierre had been guillotined, and the Reign of Terror was over. In August 1794, she was released from prison. Now destitute, she had to be supported by a former servant who took pity on her plight. Although traces of the trauma she had endured would mark her personality for the rest of her life, over the next few years Madame Lavoisier slowly put the pieces of her shattered existence back together. With the end of the terrorist phase of the revolution, she inherited the bulk of her husband's wealth and began once more to entertain Parisian society. During this difficult period of adjustment, she carried on an intense love affair with an old family friend who was 20 years her senior, Pierre Samuel Dupont, a relationship that appears to have begun in the final, chaotic months before her husband's trial and execution. Although their strong personalities made a permanent stable relationship virtually impossible to achieve, even after their liaison had ended Dupont remained emotionally attached to Marie. In 1799, at the time of his departure for America, he addressed her in a letter which he never sent: "my dear lady, your name will always be linked with mine." (In the New World, Dupont had an immensely successful business career as founder of the chemical company that still bears his family name.)

In October 1805, Marie Lavoisier married Count Rumford, whose title was Bavarian but who was in fact a colorful Massachusetts-born scientist named Benjamin Thomson. His accomplishments included service as a colonel in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. One of the most highly regarded scientific investigators of the day, Count Rumford studied the nature of light, demonstrated the mechanical nature of heat, and made practical discoveries in the area of the rational use of foods and fuels, resulting in more nourishing soups for feeding the poor and greatly improved fireplace designs. In a letter describing Lavoisier soon after he met her in 1801, Rumford praised "this amiable lady … [who is] … very sociable … [and who] … lives in elegant style, and is hostess to the greatest philosophers and the most eminent scientists and writers in Paris. And above all, she is kindness itself."

It soon became obvious to all of Paris that this union—of two highly intelligent and strong-willed individuals, both of whom were middle-aged and set in their ways—was very much a mismatch. Lavoisier lived to entertain friends in her charming house, surrounded by an English garden, in one of the most elegant districts of Paris. Rumford, on the other hand, desired the peace and quiet of his laboratory and his beloved rose garden. Both were stubborn and unwilling to compromise on even the most trivial matters, and they argued much of the time, sometimes in public. After he forbade the porter to let his wife's friends enter the house (forcing them to speak with their hostess through the mansion gate), she got her revenge by pouring boiling water over his exquisite rose bushes. After four years characterized by little wedded bliss, the marriage ended in 1809 with an amicable separation that left the oft-poor but famous scientist Rumford with a handsome financial settlement of between 300,000 and 400,000 francs.

For the next 27 years, Madame de Rumford, as she continued to be known, devoted herself entirely to entertaining her friends in grand style. In the words of historian François Guizot, she chose to entertain her distinguished guests—scientists, artists, and high society—with "a rather singular mixture of rudeness and courtesy." Most of her visitors were flattered to receive her invitations and usually ignored the fact that "her language could be brusque and she was subject to authoritarian whims." For a number of years before he was forced to return to America, one of her most favored party guests was her old lover Pierre Samuel Dupont. Several years after his return to the States, Dupont died in Wilmington, Delaware, of a chill caught while helping to put out a fire at his son's gunpowder works.

As Lavoisier's friends of the past began to die, she lived more and more alone. A relic from the Old Regime, she became ever more eccentric, a nature often commented on by the younger generation of French writers and intellectuals. The Delahante brothers, descended like Antoine Lavoisier from a family of pre-revolutionary Tax Farmers, wrote about their visits to her home on the rue d'Anjou. They began by noting the striking David portrait of Antoine and Marie Lavoisier, going on to describe Marie:

This old Turk [who] was all that remained of the beautiful young woman depicted by David: it was Madame de Rumford, with her aged, masculine face, coiffed and rigged out in the most bizarre way. She greeted us in her abrupt manner, which was not unkind, asked us to sit down, and began asking us questions about our studies and pastimes…. After a few minutes she would suddenly get up from the love seat and go and stand with her back to the fireplace … pull up her skirts from behind as high as her garters and leisurely warm her enormous calves…. She often gave elegant balls that we enjoyed more than the visits, in spite of her active surveillance and the severity with which she chased us away from the buffet to have us dance the quadrille.

Marie Lavoisier died on February 10, 1836, having played an important role in the birth of modern chemistry. She had lived under and survived the various political and other vicissitudes of seven constitutions and eight forms of government in a turbulent era of French history.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia