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The surveyor and the surveyed: Enlightenment Women


Kate Romano


This blog is an edited version of a short lecture I gave as part of the Enlightenment Festival for ACE Cultural Tours held at Stapleford Granary 24-26 October 2021 


This is a portrait of Monsieur and Madame Lavoisier painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1788. His image of the modern, scientifically minded couple hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eight feet tall and six feet wide, I knew nothing of this famous painting, or indeed its subjects, when I first came across it a few years ago - often the best way to come to a picture, with no pre-conceived expectations.


The first thing I noticed was the intimate partnership between the two figures. Marie Lavoisier stands whilst he – Antoine Lavoisier, the ‘father of modern chemistry’ - sits. Her hands are positioned downwards, one on his shoulder, the other on the table. His posture points upwards to Marie - questioning, listening, looking. He surveys her, whilst she surveys us, the viewer of the painting. She is both surveyor and surveyed. To quote the late great John Berger: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’.


I thought about this painting and Berger’s words a lot as I read the scattered, sketchy details of women who lived during the Enlightenment. I was researching for a short talk to redress the gender balance of a three-day cultural festival on ‘the long century’, the content of which was dominated by canonical male thinkers, writers, musicians and scientists. More recently, historians have sought to re-write women into the narrative as historical agents and participants of the Enlightenment.


It’s not an easy narrative to remedy. A number of women have emerged as talented intellectuals and creatives of the time but it’s a small group. Women who lived during the Enlightenment were continually under the tutelage of men. They were considered to be inferior to men and their role in society was primarily domestic. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the leading thinkers and philosophers of the time, wrote.


‘The education of women should always be relative to that of men.  To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable…  Even if she possessed real abilities, it would only debase her to display them’.


Much has been debated about Rousseau’s radically sex-roled view of society. Given his views on the importance of equality and self-sufficiency, some think he is simply inconsistent in advocating women to be submissive and dependent. Whilst his views might not be quite so representative across Europe, they are still a striking reminder of the place of women within Enlightenment ideology.


Marie was just 13 when she married 28 year old Antoine Lavoisier. Exceptionally bright, she learned English so she could translate. As her interest in chemistry grew, she had lessons from her husbands’ colleagues. She became Antoine’s brilliant lab manager, taking accurate measurements (her handwriting is all over his notebooks) and making beautiful drawings of his experiments so they could be repeated. Here is one, below. Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined in 1794, yet Marie continued to widen the impact of his work. She organised publications of his memoirs. She ran a weekly salon until she was very elderly (with this portrait hanging on the wall) where people came to debate new developments in scientific research.




Marie was able to gain an education because of her class, wealth and personal circumstances (her marriage to Lavoisier). She would have had access to scientific instruments and experiments, which took place in the home. There would have been a library, possibly cabinets of curiosities, and lengthy intellectual debates with visiting guests, also at home. Her story is a typical example of the best education available to a woman in the 18th century and the means to access it; via the home and via men (fathers, brothers or husbands). I was interested in the nature of her work; she was especially skilled in making her husband’s work more widely known. And I realised that many of the exceptional women I was reading about also demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for the popular dissemination of new ideas. Here are four further brief case studies:


Émilie du Châtelet (1706 – 1749) - a French scholar and scientist, Du Châtelet was a baron’s daughter who collaborated with Voltaire (her lover) on his radical book about the elements of Newton's philosophy. Her most recognized achievement is her translation of and commentary on Newton’s 1687 Principia containing the basic laws of physics. The translation was published after her death and is still considered the standard French translation today. This was not a mere translation though – Du Châtelet was in a dialogue with Newton. She tested his maths, she translated his complex ideas into algebra, she questioned his findings and she tried to synthesise the three competing great strands of intellectual thought at this time: Newton, Descartes and Leibniz.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689 - 1762) - a very bright English aristocrat writer and poet. Travelling to Turkey with her husband (the Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire) she noted local and effective inoculation practices against smallpox which was killing children back in England. Mary had her two children inoculated (very publicly). She wrote newspaper articles to promote inoculation and advocated the practice of medical ideas from outside Europe. She lobbied her friends and the Royal Family. Eventually, due to all the publicity, the practice of inoculation began spreading and her work paved the way for the acceptance of Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination in the early 1800s.


Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848) – musician turned astronomer, Caroline Herschel is usually noted for her discovery of several comets. But surely of even greater significance was the help she gave her brother William in his exploration of ‘the construction of the heavens’. She compiled massive star catalogues, like a natural history of the skies, which were published in the late 1700s by the Royal Society. Her catalogue contained over 560 stars which were missing from John Flamsteed’s earlier catalogue and an index of his errors that she had noticed. After William’s death Caroline Herschel reorganized his catalogues of nebulae so that his son, John, could revise his father’s work.


Hélène de Montgeroult (1764 - 1836) – pianist, composer and teacher. A contemporary of Beethoven and Rossini, she was a wealthy aristocrat who lived in Paris during the French Revolution. Her profound belief that the dry, percussive pianos of the time were capable of ‘singing’ like the Italian bel canto vocal style of the day, led her to compose 144 études. Far from mere technical studies or teaching exercises, they are beautifully wrought miniatures, visionary and accomplished. She wanted her belief in the expressive potential of the piano to be widely known and she did this via teaching material, rather than a concert platform, for others to learn from in a hands-on way.






These five polymaths - Marie Lavoisier, Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Wortley Montagu, Caroline Herschel, Hélène de Montgeroult - show exceptional ingenuity and determination to synthesise and share ideas. They are mediators, to the extent of making changes in an attempt to popularise ideas and make them more widely understood. They were part of an essential system; culture only exists and progress only takes place when more people start to pay attention to some of the same things. For ideas to stand a chance of being taken notice of, they need to be brought into the world with care, skill and imagination.


But I kept returning to the painting of Marie and Antoine Lavoisier. The more I looked, I realised that I was drawn to the four expressive hands at the heart of the painting. Your eye rests first on Marie; it follows her hands down to the table, it moves to Antoine’s right hand, up to his left, then to his face, and follows his gaze back to Marie. It seems that however we choose to take in the painting, all eyes are on Marie via a visual cycle at its centre.


John Berger was one of the first people to write really well about the difference between the social presence of a man and a woman. In his seminal 1972 book, Ways of Seeing, he devotes a chapter to what we now refer to as ‘the male gaze’ (a phrase coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to highlight the camera’s focus on women’s sexuality). ‘A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies’ he writes, and the promise is exterior of the man: i.e. ‘what he is capable of doing to you or for you’. In contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself and ‘defines what can or cannot be done to her’. Her presence is manifest in everything – her opinions, voice, clothes, gestures. ‘There is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence’ concludes Berger. Where men act, women watch themselves being watched.


Pianist and composer Hélène de Montgeroult was under the daily gaze of 350 all-male students and professors as the first and only female professor in the Paris Conservatoire (she left after less than two years). Caroline Herschel’s apparent willingness to step away from a promising solo singing career to follow her brother into astronomy might have been made easier by the thought of not having to perform under intense public scrutiny. Mary Montagu’s writings on the benefits of inoculation were met with widespread hostility and violence from doctors and physicians on medical, economic, religious and sexist grounds. Émilie du Châtelet’s scientific skills were subject to mockery by many and she famously retaliated: ‘Judge for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great renowned scholar or that, that I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do’. ‘The surveying of every move, behaviour, and action becomes part of the presence of the women’ wrote Berger.


Its not too difficult to contemplate how much the empowerment politics of ‘watching yourself being watched’ shaped the work and lives of accomplished women in the 18th century; how it might have led to them being more compliant or more strategic, more determined or defensive. Their talent for dissemination might subconsciously have been connected to a desire to put some distance between their work and their watched selves: to promote an idea (your own or someone else's), you have to immerse yourself wholly in it and rigorously test it from all angles: does it still stand up? Is it something other than what it claims to be? And then you have to partially remove yourself from the idea, mentally separate yourself and package up the idea like an object. You have to put yourself in the place of the people who are receiving the idea and constantly ask - how will they consume it? It’s a cyclic process of continual review - from the inside and the outside. 


My sample of Enlightenment women is small. And yet I find their interdisciplinary approach of testing and sharing to be striking and contemporary, very much in line with my own ways of thinking when I am working with other people's ideas as a producer, commissioner or creating public cultural events.  They demonstrate the need to interrogate ideas and question accepted ways of doing things in order to promote them, from scientific paradigms to the composition of 114 studies. Their working methods reveal a continuum of thought – from the conceptual to the imaginative and back again - often in opposition to more narrow modes of thinking. They show that ways of working are shaped by ways of seeing, as true then as it is today. 



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