Today I went to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the world’s greatest public institutions. Upon entry to the facility, a grand staircase invites visitors up to the collection of European paintings. At the top of the stairs, in the first gallery, a visitor soon stands face-to-face with a friendly looking portrait of Benjamin Franklin, painted from life by Joseph Duplessis while our Founding Father was America’s ambassador to France. The portrayal was Franklin’s favorite and the one his family claimed was his most accurate likeness. We instantly recognize the image because it graces our hundred dollar bills.
What is so remarkable about seeing Franklin’s portrait in the Met is this: On the opposite wall, the museum’s curators have hung a dual portrait — by Jacques-Louis David — depicting the pioneering French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and his wife, Marie-Ann, who worked as his assistant. Lavoisier is depicted seated at a table in their laboratory, while his wife stands beside him, leaning on his shoulder. The floor is strewn with glass flasks, while lab equipment rests on the table.
Franklin, were he alive, would relish the juxtaposition of his own portrait with that of his fellow scientist and Marie-Ann. The three of them spent many hours together in the lab, demonstrating experiments and arranging for gunpowder to be manufactured and sent to America to support our Revolutionary War. Franklin was present in Lavoisier’s lab when the Count of the North (the future Russian Czar Paul I) witnessed a demonstration of the effect that pure oxygen has on the intensity of combustion.
Franklin wrote: “M. Lavoisier the other day showed an experiment at the Academy of Sciences to the Comte du Nord, that is said to be curious. He kind1ed a hollow charcoal and blew into it a stream of dephlogisticated air [now called oxygen]. In this focus, which is said to be the hottest fire human art has yet been able to produce, he melted Platina [platinum] in a few minutes.”
Years later, when Lavoisier wrote his monumental book explaining his new system of chemistry (the one we still use today), Franklin penned this thank you note to Marie-Ann for the volume: “Please to present my thanks to Mr. Lavoisier for the Nomenclature Chimique he has been so good as to send me (It must be a very useful book) and assure him of my great and sincere esteem and attachment. My best wishes attend you both, and I think I cannot wish you and him greater happiness than a long continuance of the connection.”
Lavoisier did not, however, enjoy a long life. He was guillotined during the Reign of Terror at age 50. Fortunately, Franklin had died of natural causes four years earlier.
Around the time of Franklin’s death, a sarcastic ditty about the difference between French and American science went like this: “Antoine Lavoisier lost his head, while Benjamin Franklin died in bed.”