A few years ago, I created a painting for the backdrop of a play based on an 18th-century masterpiece in the Louvre titled, The Embarkation to the Island of Cythera.
The artist, Antoine Watteau, had typified the graceful and playful style of the Rococo, a style of art that exemplified a light and elegant version of Italian Baroque. Recording the French aristocratic zest for pleasure, Watteau incorporated idyllic scenes in a naturalistic style, much like a pastoral poem.
I thought this would be the perfect backdrop to highlight the era of a woman born to this world of beauty, hedonism, frivolity, and romance. But the irony of the scene was that although she was born to aristocracy and had a parade of lovers, she was even more passionate about understanding the mechanics of the universe; of fire, of heat, of mathematical equations that formulate the inner and outer workings of the laws of physics.
The play was based on a biography written by Judith P. Zinsser: Émilie Du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. It was about an unorthodox and brilliant mathematician and physicist, who also happened to be the lover of the greatest mind of the enlightenment, Voltaire.
Born in Paris in 1706, Émilie’s education was a credit to her father, who recognized her genius for learning at an early age. She studied English, Italian, Greek, and Latin. She read Homer and Cicero and translated the Aeneid into French. AND, she surpassed her contemporaries in the field of mathematics.
As a woman, Émilie, was a product of her class, enjoying the hedonistic social scene with friends and lovers.
At the age of 19, she became the wife of the 34-year old Marquis Florent Du Châtelet, the governor of Semur-En-Auxois, a medieval city in the heart of Burgundy in the Cote-d’Or region between Paris and Lyon. This liaison cemented her status in society. After the birth of three children, the Marquis, a busy man with his military career, left Émilie to her own devices…and lovers.
She returned to the social life in Paris where she began an 18-month affair with the Duc de Richelieu, the grand-nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, the Prime Minister of France.
It may have been during her time with the Duc she met his close friend, Voltaire. She once wrote to him saying, “Why did you never tell me that M. Voltaire is the paragon of Men?”
During her fifteen years with Voltaire, Émilie is credited with assisting him with his popular treatise, Elémens de la philosophie de Newton in 1738, a layman’s guide to Newton’s most advanced theories, including the gravity of planets, the proof of atoms, the refraction of light, and the uses of telescopes.
Émilie herself translated Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” from Latin into French describing how elliptical orbits work and how bodies in motion exert force upon one another. She even made commentaries and corrections to some of his formulas. She studied the nature of light and heat and wrote an essay on FIRE – all in the 18th century.
In their search for Truth about life and the inception of life, Émilie and Voltaire did research on physics, mathematics, metaphysics, moral philosophy and critical deism, a detailed analysis of the Bible to understand whether the document had a valid basis for religion.
I was taken by Émilie’s resolve to not allow herself to be lost to the culture and customs of her time. She was a pioneer, not only in the field of mathematics and physics but a role model for women…during the 18th century and for today. In one of the last scenes in the play, she asks her friend and tutor to make sure her book that was finished days before she died in childbirth (at the age of 43) would be published.
It would take ten years, but with Voltaire’s help, her text of Newton’s Principia was at last in print, which remains the standard version of the text in France today.
Two years and many revisions later, my painting was finally complete. Émilie’s mathematical formulas infused the landscape while Watteau’s painting guided me through Émilie’s era. Art historian, Sir Michael Levey once wrote that Watteau “created, unwittingly, the concept of the individualistic artist loyal to himself, and himself alone.” He could have been describing Émilie in her passion to accomplish and discover the principles of life.
Watteau was all but forgotten for decades, as was Émilie. Both died at a young age. And both were pioneers of their time. What set them apart from their era was their fierce independence and their utter devotion to being true to themselves. Watteau paid homage to love, physical and carnal, as he incorporated cupids and pairs of lovers walking along the shore.
Omitting all but two of the beautiful people strolling the island of Cythera (which happens to be the birthplace of the goddess Venus) my painting is also about love, but it is about Émilie’s love for her mathematical formulas and Voltaire’s love for her as a woman and love for her mind.
Émilie’s legacy surfaced in the 20th century. A woman ahead of her time, her research and dedication to science was the precursor to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A woman who dared to be herself during a time when women were not even allowed to be educated, today, Émilie the Marquise Du Châtelet has the respect of her peers in scientific laboratories throughout the world.
Voltaire summed up her life when he wrote,
“That lady whom I look upon as a great man… She understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short, she makes me happy.”