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"Children of Pierre Janssen, Discoverer of Helium"

Jenny Smirtch

After her graduation from art school Smirtch devoted her life to immortalizing the families of famous chemists. It was an appropriate career, perhaps, for the heir to the Rotless Patent Embalming Fluid fortune.


Her first painting to receive wide recognition was the "Posthumous Portrait of the Children of Johann Schroeder, Discoverer of Arsenic," which was hailed at the time as strikingly innovative, as no one had ever posed a deceased family group before. Her salon piece, "Blue Boys," depicted the sons of English chemist William Henry Perkin, the inventor of aniline dyes.


The painting shown here is another early work. Janssen's helium laboratory was in his home, and he used his family as subjects for many of the experiments he conducted to discover the element's properties. All the Janssen children had high-pitched, squeaky voices due to excessive exposure to the gas. The dog, Montgolfier, was also essential to Janssen's investigations into the medical applications of his discovery. Unfortunately the helium enema never caught on, and the dog himself was later lost in a windstorm during an attempt to perfect a breed of aerial watchdogs.


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