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Charles Alexandre Lesueur

1778-1846

Natural history artist, naturalist and explorer, was born at Le Havre, France, on 1 January 1778, one of the numerous children of Jean-Baptiste-Denis Lesueur, an officer in the Admiralty, and Charlotte Génévieve, née Thieullent. Sent to the Ecole Royale Militaire at Beaumont-en-Auge, he was not interested in military activities but pursued his two passions, the study of the natural history of the local marine foreshore and the reproduction of it on paper. From 1797 to 1799 he was under-officer in the National Guard at Le Havre.

At the turn of the nineteenth century a lavishly equipped scientific expedition was prepared by the Institut de France, with the blessing of Napoleon, in order to explore the southern parts of the Eastern Hemisphere. Two corvettes, the Géographe and the Naturaliste , were equipped in the port of Le Havre with the most experienced officers in the navy. The Institut de France selected no less than twenty-three scientists, the positions being coveted by a large number of applicants. Among those selected was François Péron , a brilliant young medical botanist and anthropologist. Lesueur was taken on, not as an artist or scientist, but as an assistant gunner. The expedition sailed from Le Havre on 19 October 1800 under the command of Nicolas Baudin, who soon discovered the talents of the young gunner and employed him as an illustrator for his private journal.

At the Ile de France the chief zoologist of the Naturaliste , Bory de St Vincent, himself an eminent naturalist and illustrator, endorsed the high opinion of Lesueur’s talents as an artistic and exact illustrator and after Bory’s departure Péron was appointed chief zoologist. He worked as illustrator with Lesueur. Not only were they co-explorers and co-workers, but they so well complemented each other in their work and interests that they became inseparable friends until Péron died on 10 December 1810. Ten days earlier, Lesueur made one of his most beautiful drawings of his friend.

Baudin’s voyage was not a happy one, being dogged by sickness and disputes. The two ships first charted the Western Australian coast before heading towards Van Diemen’s Land. Surveying work was carried out in D’Entrecasteaux Channel, towards Bass Strait, and along the coast between Wilson’s Promontory and Nuyts Archipelago. Sickness among the crew forced Baudin to head for Sydney, where he arrived in June 1802. After resting, he took his fittest crew members back down towards Van Diemen’s Land, across to Kangaroo Island, then up the western coast, surveying as he went. The sadly depleted expedition reached Mauritius in August 1803.

During their four years of exploration with the Baudin expedition in Australian waters Péron and Lesueur went ashore together on nearly all occasions. Most of the 100,000 specimens of marine and land natural products which were collected – of which an astonishing 2,500 were previously unknown – carry the label 'Péron and Lesueur’. On the voyage a large number of sketches and full-scale drawings were also made by Lesueur. Some of the coloured illustrations are very vivid, obviously observed from living or recently killed Australian animals, as the colours of the coelenterates and some of the skins of birds and marsupials would have faded on preserved specimens. At a time when coralline algae were regarded as animals, Péron and Lesueur were the first Europeans to collect Australian representatives of these, on King Island in Bass Strait. They were subsequently described with other Australian marine animals by Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744 1829) whose classic descriptions were based on the zealous endeavours of these two French collectors. Lesueur has been commemorated with an algal genus, Lesueuria (Woelkerling & Ducker 1987).

Péron and one of the officers of the expedition, Lieutenant Louis de Freycinet , combined to produce the published account of the voyage, Voyage des Découvertes aux Terres Australes… . The first volume and its illustrated atlas appeared in 1807. After Péron’s death in 1810, Lesueur helped Freycinet bring out the second part of the atlas in 1811 and the second volume of the voyage in 1816 (the frontispiece of which is Lesueur’s portrait of Péron). The first volume was published in English in 1809. The majority of the illustrations in the work were after drawings by Lesueur and Nicholas Petit . Petit provided much of the portraiture, while Lesueur’s work was used for the natural history studies, views, coastal profiles (thirty of which relate to Australia) and sketches of native huts and implements. He provided only two purely landscape views, one of the entrance to Sydney Harbour and the other a view of the Harbour taken from Government House, Vue de la Partie Meridionale de la Ville de Sydney (commonly known as 'Mrs King’s View’). Understandably, his landscapes were very topographical; even his vignettes of native life and customs carefully delineate the surrounding scenery. Lesueur located his subjects very specifically in a manner quite unlike that of a picturesque landscape painter.

Most of the 1500 drawings Lesueur took back to France were of zoological and marine subjects. The majority of these were never published, but those that were, such as Le Wombat Nouvelle Hollande, Ile King , were worked into beautiful engravings with a fine sense of detail, environment and light. These are still commonly reproduced, frequently without any acknowledgment of the artist. However, on the occasion of the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, Bonnemains, Forsyth & Smith published the magnificent Baudin in Australian Waters: The Artwork of the French Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Lands 1800 1804 which for the first time brought, at least partially, the superb artistic skill of Lesueur and his co-workers (hitherto confined to the museum at Le Havre) to a wider public. Lesueur’s illustrations show a most impressive and natural understanding of Australian vegetation, especially the gum-trees. Many of the marine organisms not in the original atlas are reproduced, and Lesueur has drawn these animals with care, skill and obvious enjoyment. In particular, the illustrations of the pelagic organisms convey a beautiful translucency, the wonder of the marine biologist.

In 1815 Lesueur accompanied the wealthy Scottish geologist William McClure to the United States. After a visit to the West Indies, they sailed to New York and from there to Philadelphia, New England and the Great Lakes of North America. From 1817 to 1825 he was curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences where he completed his great work on the fish of North America and gave art lessons. While there, he had his portrait painted by Charles Willson Peale; it alludes to Lesueur’s scientific and artistic abilities. At the eighth annual exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Lesueur exhibited a painting of a cassowary, Casoars de Nouvelle-Hollande , probably one of the intricate watercolours on vellum he painted in France from his Australian sketches. Between 1826 and 1834 he illustrated three major scientific publications: Goodman’s American Natural History (1826 28), Say’s American Entomology (1828) and Say’s American Conchology (1830 34).

After an absence of more than twenty years, Lesueur returned to France and became curator of the newly established Musée d’Histoire Naturelle at Le Havre. His last work was a lithograph depicting the geology of the nearby cliffs. He died at Le Havre on 12 December 1846.

(From the Design and Art Australia Biography)