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Marie Curie--an unusual image.

Maria Sklodowska (1867-1934) was born in Warsaw at a time when Poland had temporarily vanished from the map of Europe, after having been divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Her upbringing was marked by resistance to the attempts to blot out Polish culture in the Russia-occupied territory. Partly because of that, she received a well-rounded basic education in both the humanities and science, and became fascinated by the latter. In 1891, she left for Paris to pursue university studies and earned degrees in mathematics and physics from the Sorbonne. In 1895 she married a physicist Pierre Curie, with whom she worked until his tragic death in 1906. She became known as Marie Curie, except in her native Poland, where Curie-Sklodowska is always used.

The turn of the 20th century was a fascinating time to be a physicist. In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen had published a paper on the discovery of X-rays. Henri Becquerel had observed new "uranium rays." The Curies were apparently inspired to study these phenomena by the subsequent experiments of Lord Kelvin, and their work eventually led to the discovery of 2 new elements: polonium and radium. The discovery of radium quickly became clinically important because of the effect of radioactivity on rapidly reproducing cells, and radium, at the time, was the only available source of such radiation. Thus, Institut du Radium was built in Paris (1912-1914), where it housed both research and clinical groups (the latter led by Claudius Regaud). Later, in 1932, a Radium Institute was also founded in Warsaw.

Marie Curie's life became one of the true-life legends of science. Her monumental scientific legacy spans physics and chemistry. She received her first Nobel Prize in 1903, together with Becquerel and Pierre Curie, for the discovery of radioactivity. The second one, in 1911, of which she was the sole recipient, was for the discovery of radium and polonium. Equally important was that her success in the male-dominated world of high-flying research became a triumphal example of what a woman could achieve.

The beginning of the 20th century was also one of the most interesting periods in the European arts. The avant-garde artists had moved from the impressionist representation ofthe nuances of nature and light to the Postimpressionist emphasis on the representation of emotions and things spiritual. Forms, colors, and composition became means of such representation.

German Expressionism is represented by painters such as Ernst L. Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and, later, Max Beckmann, to name only a few. It was sparked by the formation of 2 artist groups: one, called Die Brucke (The Bridge), beginning in 1905 in Dresden and the other, known as Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), in Munich. The predecessor of The Blue Rider group was another group, Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (NKVM, the New Artists Group Munich), which existed between 1909 and 1913.


Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), who painted the portrait ofMadame Curie shown here, was born in Torzhok, Russia. He abandoned a military career to study art in Saint Petersburg under Ilya Repin (18441930), the most important Russian realist painter. In 1896 he moved to Munich, a city then developing into one ofthe most important art centers in Europe. There he met another Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, with whom he remained associated for many years. While studying in Munich, Jawlensky traveled extensively, mostly to France. Around 1903, he discovered van Gogh and Gauguin. In Paris in 1905, he exhibited at the Salon d'Automne (Autumn Salon), where artists, including Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck, created much controversy and were famously branded the Fauves (Wild Beasts) because of their expressive use of non-naturalistic color. Jawlensky became a proponent of these new trends and in 1907 worked briefly with Matisse. In 1909, he founded NVKM together with Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter.

When Jawlensky painted the portrait of Madame Curie in 1905, he was still searching for artistic direction. The image is surprisingly realistic, a reminder of his former training, but the short brush strokes remind one ofvan Gogh's technique. He brightens the effect of the dark dress by introducing bright red, white, and yellow into the background, and the crowded colors, together with a painting hanging on the wall behind Madame Curie, provide an impression of opulence, making this image very different from the rather severe photographs of her we are used to.

The context is that in 1905, after the award of the Nobel Prize, the Curies achieved a sort of celebrity status in France. The portrait was probably painted at the height of their popularity. The Marie Curie biographies celebrate her efforts and achievements but at the same time make a rather severe impression. Her initial poverty, sacrifice, and incessant hard work, not to mention the later tragedy of Pierre Curie's death, tend to dominate her image. Here, refreshingly, we have a glimpse of something different: a portrait created by a trendy young artist. Apparently, the Curies, while detesting excessive publicity, did manage to find some time during this period for theater and contacts with the art world, such as visits to Rodin's studio. We know little about these pursuits, and thus this piece of art adds something to the dominant narrative of her life filled by chemistry and physics.

Further Reading

Curie E (Sheean V, translator). Madame Curie: a biography. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press; 2001. 393 p. This book, written by Marie Curie's youngest daughter Eve, was first published by Gallimard in Paris in 1937. This edition is a facsimile of the 1937 edition published in New York. The book became one of most read biographies ever.

Quinn S. Marie Curie. A life. London: Mandarin; 1996. 509 p. An acclaimed contemporary biography of Marie Curie.

Rockwell S. The life and legacy of Marie Curie. Yale J Biol Med 2003;76:167-80.

Elger D. Expressionism. Cologne: Taschen; 1998. 255 p.

Wilson S, De Chassey E. Paris, capital of the arts 1900-1968 [catalogue of an exhibition]. London: Royal Academy of Arts; 2002. 448 p.

Dominiczak MH. Alloys and symbols: Rodin's The Thinker. Clin Chem 2011;57:145-6. The Nobel Prize in physics 1903. 1903/. Details of the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics awarded to Antoine Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, and Marie Curie. The Nobel Prize in chemistry 1911. laureates/1911/. Details of the 1911 Nobel Prize in chemistry awarded to Marie Curie.

Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.

Authors' Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest: No authors declared any potential conflicts of interest.

Acknowledgments: The author thanks Jacky Gardiner for excellent secretarial assistance.

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2011.162842

<ADD> Marek H. Dominiczak * College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK. </ADD>

* Address correspondence to the author at: Department of Biochemistry, Gartnavel General Hospital, Glasgow G12 0YN, UK. Fax +44-141-211-3452; e-mail
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Title Annotation:International Year of Chemistry 2011
Author:Dominiczak, Marek H.
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Previous Article:The Big Fight.
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