The Portrait of Laplace

This portrait of Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827) was painted from life in 1784, when Laplace was 35 years old. The artist was Johann-Ernst Heinsius, presumably hired by Laplace's patron, Jean-Baptiste Gaspard Bochart de Saron, who had funded the publication of Laplace's first book that same year: Théorie du Mouvement de la Figure Elliptique des Planetes (Paris, Imprimerie de Ph.-D. Pierres, 1784).

Heinsius borrowed the pose from a self-portrait in 1711 by the well-known earlier portrait artist, Nicolas de Largillierre, and he signaled the debt by signing Largillierre's name to the portrait. Largillierre had depicted an easel with the beginning of the self-portrait on display; Heinsius showed an easel with a drawing from mechanics of a simple balance, to illustrate the mathematical nature of Laplace's work. In fact, diagrams of any sort are quite rare in Laplace's published work. Heinsius executed two very similar versions of the portrait; the other has hung in a small museum in Lons-le-Saunier (in the east of France) since 1860. No other portraits of Laplace under the age of 50 are known; the most commonly reprinted portrait was painted in 1842, 15 years after he died.

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Persi Diaconis Bradley Efron James Berger Samuel Kou
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