Painting - Geometry of a Triple Bubble (Plateau)

The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801–1883) performed a sequence of experiments using soap bubbles. One investigation led him to show that when two soap bubbles join, the two exterior surfaces and the interface between the two bubbles will all be spherical segments. Furthermore, the angles between these surfaces will be 120 degrees.
Crockett Johnson's painting illustrates this phenomenon. It also displays Plateau's study of the situation that arises when three soap bubbles meet. Plateau discovered that when three bubbles join, the centers of curvature (marked by double circles in the figure) of the three overlapping surfaces are collinear.
This painting was most likely inspired by a figure located in an article by C. Vernon Boys entitled "The Soap-bubble." James R. Newman included this essay in his book entitled The World of Mathematics (p. 900). Crockett Johnson had this publication in his personal library, and the figure in his copy is annotated.
The artist chose several pastel shades to illustrate his painting. This created a wide range of shades and tints that allows the painting to appear three-dimensional. Crockett Johnson chose to depict each sphere in its entirety, rather than showing just the exterior surfaces as Boys did. This helps the viewer visualize Plateau's experiment.
This painting was executed in oil on masonite and has a wood and chrome frame. It is #23 in the series. It was completed in 1966 and is signed: CJ66. It is marked on the back: Crockett Johnson 1966 (/) GEOMETRY OF A TRIPLE BUBBLE (/) (PLATEAU).
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Plateau, Joseph
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
wood (frame material)
masonite (substrate material)
chrome (frame material)
overall: 74 cm x 63 cm x 3.8 cm; 29 1/8 in x 24 13/16 in x 1 1/2 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Science & Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Ruth Krauss in memory of Crockett Johnson
Additional Media

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