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Portrait of a Mathematician

The label identifies this painting as a portrait of Pierre Joseph de Rivaz, an 18th-century “Swiss mathematician, inventor and historian.” Rivaz is not particularly famous, and seems to be better known for his inventions than his mathematical achievements. Nonetheless, the label claims this is a “Portrait of a Mathematician.”

“Portrait of a Mathematician,” according to the label.

Although there seems to be some doubt about whether or not this is a portrait of Rivaz, I am not interested in that issue. What interests me is the way an otherwise generic, albeit wealthy, “mathematician, inventor and historian” was depicted in the 18th century. Looking at this portrait, I wondered:

  • What sort of portrait would today’s working mathematicians think best represents them?
  • What accoutrements would they array around themselves?
  • What would they wear?
  • Where would they choose to sit?

We could substitute inventor or historian for mathematician and ask the same questions. And what similarities and differences would we see between the various portraits.