Painting - Curve Tangents (Fermat)

The French lawyer and mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665) was one of the first to develop a systematic way to find the straight line which best approximates a curve at any point. This line is called the tangent line. This painting shows a curve with two horizontal tangent lines. Assuming that the curve is plotted against a horizontal axis, one line passes through a maximum of a curve, the other through a minimum. An article by H. W. Turnbull, "The Great Mathematicians," published in The World of Mathematics by James R. Newman, emphasized how Fermat's method might be applied to find maximum and minimum values of a curve plotted above a horizontal line (see his figures 14 and 16). Crockett Johnson owned and read the book, and annotated the first figure. The second figure more closely resembles the painting.
Computing the maximum and minimum value of functions by finding tangents became a standard technique of the differential calculus developed by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz later in the 17th century.
Curve Tangents is painting #12 in the Crockett Johnson series. It was executed in oil on masonite, completed in 1966, and is signed: CJ66. The painting has a wood and metal frame.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Fermat, Pierre de
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
masonite (substrate material)
wood (frame material)
metal (frame material)
overall: 48.2 cm x 63.5 cm; 19 in x 25 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Science & Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center


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