Two years ago in July, I began a painting as the backdrop for a play. It was an abstract version of an 18th century painting in the Louvre by Antoine Watteau called The Embarcation to the Island of Cythera. And why, you wonder, would I be doing a version of a Rococo painting from 1717?
Early in 2014, Jyl Bonaguro (the wonderful sculptor and playwright we represent at Hilton | Asmus Contemporary) invited me to a reading of a play she had written about a brilliant mathematician and physicist of the 18th century, who also happened to be a woman and the lover one of the most brilliant writers of the Enlightenment, Voltaire.
The play, "URANIA, The Life of Emilie Du Châtelet" was based on a biography written by Judith P. Zinsser: Émilie Du Châtelet: Daring Genius of the Enlightenment. Jyl's play was so intriguing, I offered to have a production performed at my gallery. And then, without a thought, I offered to do a painting for the backdrop! I had not really thought about what I would do, but realized it needed to be a soft, romantic, pastoral landscape.
As an artist and poet, this play about Émilie du Chatelet resonated profoundly with me because my works delve into the interconnectedness of human beings with the universe. Attempting to address the various dimensions of time & space, much like a physicist delving into theories about the inception of life, I felt a kinship to Emilie. She reminded me of Leonardo Da Vinci, not the artist, but the scientist. Emilie was driven to accomplish and discover things that heretofore had not been known by human beings.
She translated Newton's "Principia Mathematica" into French and wrote an essay on FIRE in the 18th century. Newton described how elliptical orbits work and how bodies in motion exert force upon on another. Émilie studied the nature of light and heat, especially fire which happens to be the subject matter of many of my works. When I learned about her, I was taken by her 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 is published in the event she dies in childbirth, which she did at age 43. A passionate woman, she wanted to live on through her books, her theories and her love of life.
Two years and many revisions later, the painting is finally complete. This time, I included many of Emilie's mathematical formulas on the landscape. I used Watteau's painting as a guide to the 18th century, but omitted all but two of the beautiful people gracing the island of Cythera, a romantic homage to the Greek island which is the birthplace of the goddess Venus. Watteau's painting is an homage to love, physical and carnal love, as he incorporates cupids and the pairs of lovers walking along the shore.. My painting is also about love, but it is about Emilie's love for her mathematical formula's and her research on trying to figure out how the world really works.
Voltaire loved not only her beauty, but her genius. He told everyone that he had at last found his equal. So I placed Emilie and Voltaire strolling along the canvas on the shores of the Island of Cythera, along with her beloved formulas enveloping the landscape, as it did in her life.
As Jyl became enthralled by Emilie, she passed that passion on to me, A love and respect for a woman who was ahead of her time. A woman, whose 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, Emilie Du Chatelet finally has the respect of her peers in scientific laboratories throughout the world. And I am just so fortunate to have encountered her through a friend who fell in love and was driven to write about her. And she transferred that love to me!