When Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, was beheaded during the French Revolution, he left behind a widow whom history has overlooked. Two Nobel prize-winning scientists and an art historian share a passion for a beguiling portrait of the Lavoisiers by Jacques-Louis David, painted just 6 years before the famed chemist was led to the guillotine. They’re not alone in this passion; the work now presides over a gallery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. What is it about this depiction of the Lavoisiers that captures the imagination of both scientists and art lovers? A conversation among two esteemed scientists, both savvy politicians, and an art historian from the Met. The three explored their infatuation with this portrait and revealed all that is hinted at on the canvas—and all that is not.
Presented in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Garrick Utley served as founding president of the Levin Institute of the State University of New York from 2003 to 2011. He was a senior fellow and the director of New York in the World, an initiative of the Institute. The mission of the Institute and New York in the World is to support New York’s and the nation’s economic and social vitality through innovative and competitive responses to the challenges of today’s global economy. Utley also served as a broadcast journalist, with an emphasis on international affairs, on NBC, ABC, CNN, as well as Public Radio and Public Television.
Kathryn Calley Galitz is a scholar of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century French art. At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Galitz has organized international exhibitions on artists including Chassériau, Girodet, and Turner. She was a member of the curatorial team awarded Best Historical Show 2008 by the International Association of Art Critics for Gustave Courbet.
Galitz is a frequent lecturer, has appeared on radio and television, and has been a fellow at the Hermitage Museum, Attingham Summer School, and the Art Institute of Chicago. She also authored numerous works on Neoclassical painting, including “The Family Paradigm in French Painting, 1789-1814,” “Jacques-Louis David’s Portrait of Comtesse Vilain XIIII and her Daughter,” and “Gérard’s Madame de Talleyrand: Portraiture, Scandal, and the Art of Power” (forthcoming Metropolitan Museum Bulletin).
Photo credit – Eileen Travell
Harold Varmus received the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly with Dr. J. Michael Bishop, his former colleague at the University of California, San Francisco, for their discovery of cellular genes that are progenitors of retroviral oncogenes. This discovery led to the isolation of many cellular genes that normally control growth and development and are frequently mutated in human cancer.
The Director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993 to 1999, Dr. Varmus was President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for the following ten years and was a co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology from January 2009 until he became the Director of the National Cancer Institute on July 12, 2010.
Dr. Varmus has authored over 350 scientific papers and five books, including a recent memoir titled The Art and Politics of Science. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine and recipient of the National Medal of Science, as well as the Vannevar Bush Award.
Photo credit – Matthew Septimus
Roald Hoffmann is a professor of chemistry and the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. An internationally respected researcher, he is also a committed teacher and proud to have taught the first-year chemistry course almost without interruption for his entire academic career. He is a graduate of both Columbia and Harvard Universities.
The chemical properties of a substance follow from the properties of its atoms, and can be calculated. But it takes ingenuity and a commitment to understanding (rather than simulation) to translate those numbers into explanations. This is what Hoffmann has consistently done; for his theoretical contributions to the molecular science, Hoffmann was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
As a writer, Hoffmann has carved out a land between poetry, science, and philosophy, through many essays, four nonfiction books, five volumes of poems and three plays. He was the host of the PBS series The World of Chemistry and is the founder of the Entertaining Science program at Cornelia Street Café in New York City, which brings the wonder (and, yes, playfulness) of science to an intellectually curious public. Among his many honors and awards, he is unique in holding American Chemical Society Awards in three different subfields: organic (1969) and inorganic chemistry (1982) as well as chemical education (1996).
Photo credit – Michael Grace-Martin