Monday, April 18, 2011

Knowledge and power

Two paintings by the French neo-classicist Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). The first is of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the chemist, sometimes called "the Father of Modern Chemistry", who I blogged about on Friday, and his wife Marie-Anne. It was painted in 1788, on the eve of the French Revolution. The second, of course, is Napoleon, pictured crossing the Alps with his army, painted in 1800, not long after Napoleon took power in France. The paintings bracket a dozen of the most tumultuous years in French history. Click to enlarge.

They also represent two great human appetites -- for knowledge and for power. Each of us stakes a claim somewhere along the spectrum between the two images. The truly talented -- a Lavoisier or a Napoleon -- win fame and/or glory at one end or the other.

Lavoisier is shown with his laboratory equipment, much of which he designed himself for specific experiments. He holds a pen. Perhaps he is writing Elements of Chemistry, the hugely influential text that would be published the following year, establishing modern conventions of chemical nomenclature.

The painting is dominated by Lavoisier's wife, who became his amanuensis, translating texts, preparing drawings of physio-chemical apparatus (that is presumably a portfolio of her drawings at the left), and generally making herself useful. She looms over her husband, engaging the painter with her gaze, while Lavoisier seemingly shrinks under her luminous presence at the top of the compositional pyramid. The chemist was no shrinking violet; Madame Lavoisier's prominence in the portrait surely suggests her attractiveness to the portraitist. Together, Lavoisier and his wife are portrayed as exemplars of the fussily fastidious ancien regime.

Napoleon, who apparently crossed the Alps in 1800 on a led mule, is here rendered at Napoleon's request in manly glory on a fiery steed. His eyes, like Marie-Anne's, affix the painter. His emblem is not the pen, but the sword, the haft of which is the central pivot of the composition. The words on the foreground rocks associate Bonaparte's crossing of the Alps with Hannibal and Charlemagne. The painting is pure political idolatry.

Knowing and doing. Creating knowledge and creating empires. Service to empirical truth and the marshalling of "lesser lives" for personal glory.

Lavoisier was guillotined and tossed into a common grave. Napoleon reposes today within the most pretentious tomb I have ever seen. And David? He was agile enough to survive the compounding upheavals of the Revolution. A friend and ally of Robespierre and Marat, he did nothing to obstruct the execution of Lavoisier.