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Art & Artifacts


Chemistry cover-up and incoherent chloroform

by Sam Lemonick
September 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 35


The father of tax collection?

Portrait of Antoine-Laurent and Marie-Anne Lavoisier, next to image showing hidden layers in the portrait depicting their wealth and role as tax collectors
Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tax evasion: New analysis reveals that a portrait of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the scientist known as the father of modern chemistry, originally depicted him as a wealthy tax collector.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier is sometimes called the father of modern chemistry for his contributions to the field during the 18th century. That honor is often illustrated by a portrait of Lavoisier with his collaborator and wife Marie-Anne Lavoisier at a table holding a manuscript and laboratory glassware. A new investigation by researchers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reveals that the famous image once depicted something very different: the Lavoisiers as tax collectors, not scientists.

Museum workers had a chance to take a closer look at the painting when they took it down for some repairs in March 2019. In the course of that work, one conservator noticed red paint peeking through cracks near Marie-Anne’s head and asked museum scientists to check it out.

Metropolitan Museum of Art chemist Silvia A. Centeno used infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence mapping to peer beneath the painting’s surface, revealing layers of paint that artist Jacques-Louis David had painted and then covered up (Heritage Sci. 2021, DOI: 10.1186/s40494-021-00551-y). The X-ray fluorescence technique allowed the researchers to map individual elements, revealing where he had painted different colors.

Centeno and her colleagues determined that the first version of the painting showed the Lavoisiers at a desk with large sheets of paper and other accoutrements signifying their roles not as chemists, but as high-level bureaucrats called fermiers généraux who were responsible for tax collection. Anne-Marie also wore an extravagant, fashionable hat, which the researchers say showed off the couple’s wealth and status. The researchers suggest the Lavoisiers reconsidered the wisdom of flaunting their involvement in France’s exploitative tax system as the French Revolution gained momentum, thus the painting we know today. Antoine-Laurent was executed nonetheless in 1794, along with other fermiers généraux.


Warning babble

Photograph of a chloroform bottle safety label whose letters have slid and jumbled due to solvent fumes.
Credit: Andreas Orthaber
Word dissociation: Fumes scrambled the warning label on a chloroform bottle left in a storage cabinet.

Chloroform is a hazardous chemical, as the label on any bottle of the stuff will tell you. It can irritate eyes and skin, affect the central nervous system, and may even cause cancer. One hazard most warning labels don’t mention: altering the very fabric of reality we’re all so tenuously clinging to.

That’s what seems to have happened to the bottle of chloroform synthetic chemist Andreas Orthaber of Uppsala University discovered in a solvent storage cabinet this August. Well, either that or the fumes dissolved the adhesive that held the ink to the label, allowing the letters to slide and spin into a dizzying jumble.

The label now instructs users who get chloroform on their skin to “Wash with [unintelligible].” A letter d has abandoned its former friends in “swallowed” and tried to infiltrate “prolonged” on the line below.

Orthaber says he’s seen ink on labels smeared by solvents or fumes before but never letters running amok like this. His group reached out to printing experts to learn how it could have happened and even attempted to replicate the effect, but they haven’t learned much so far. The bottle’s supplier, VWR Chemicals, did not respond to Newscripts’ questions by press time.

Twitter users got a kick out of a photo of the bottle Orthaber posted. Even chemical company Sigma-Aldrichjoined in with a joke about words vaporizing into letters.

But Orthaber points out that a warning label that becomes unreadable from fumes or a spill could be a safety hazard. Newscripts cannot confirm rumors of any mental or existential hazards of attempting to read this label.

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This story was updated on Oct. 29, 2021 to include the full name of artist Jacques-Louis David.


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