Painting - Simple Equation (Descartes)

In a pathbreaking book La Géométrie, René Descartes (1596–1650) described how to perform algebraic operations using geometric methods. One such explanation is the subject of this Crockett Johnson painting. More specifically, Descartes described geometrical methods for finding the roots of simple polynomials. He wrote (as translated from the original French): "Finally, if I have z² = az -b², I make NL equal to (1/2)a and LM equal to b as before: then, instead of joining the points M and N, I draw MQR parallel to LN, and with N as center describe a circle through L cutting MQR in the points Q and R; then z, the line sought, is either MQ or MR, for in this way it can be expressed in two ways, namely: z = (1/2)a + √((1/4)a² - b²) and z = (1/2)a - √((1/4)a² - b²)."
To verify that z = MR is a solution to the equation z²= az - b², note that the square of the length of the tangent ML equals the product of the two line segments MQ and MR. As ML is defined to equal b, its square is b squared. The length of MR is z, and the length of MQ is the difference between the diameter of the circle (length a) and the segment MR, that is to say (a – z) . Hence b squared equals z (a – z) which, on rearrangement of terms, gives the result desired.
Crockett Johnson's painting directly imitates Descartes's figure found in Book I of La Géométrie. A translation of part of Book I is found in the artist’s copy of James R. Newman's The World of Mathematics. The figure on page 250 is annotated.
This oil or acrylic painting on masonite is #36 in the series. It was completed in 1966 and is signed: CJ66. It has a wooden frame.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Descartes, Rene
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
masonite (substrate material)
wood (frame material)
overall: 94.5 cm x 65 cm x 2.5 cm; 37 3/16 in x 25 9/16 in x 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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