Charles-Alexander Lesueur (1778-1846) was born in Le Harve, France on 1 January 1778. His family were not particularly well off but Lesueur was able to attend the School of Hydrography were he learnt draughtsmanship and applied graphic techniques. His work was so impressive that Commander Baudin commissioned him personally for the voyage. He in fact enlisted as an assistant gunner and assumed that he would not have to do any of the normal jobs on board ship. He was on board to draw. Lesueur and another young artist Nicholas-Martin Petit were employed for the main job of illustrating Baudin's log-his record of the journey. They must have created quite an impression because their work quickly overshadowed the work of the official artists of the expedition who resigned when Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste stopped over at Mauritius. From that time on the two younger inexperienced artists were officially recognised and would join the scientists on their explorations once New Holland was reached.
Jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) painted by Lesueur, 1804
As the journey progressed Lesueur became more of a specialist in drawing animals. This is because he became very close friends with the zoologist Peron. Peron was disliked a great deal by Baudin and made many enemies during the voyage. However, he and Lesueur became firm friends. Under Peron's guidance, Lesueur learnt the art of taxidermy, and the skills for trapping and hunting animals. At other times Peron would dance about and play the fool to distract the Indigenous Australians while Lesueur sketched them. Lesueur also learnt from Peron the importance of colour and paying particular attention to detail. Apart from completing drawings of many animals, he produced a variety of landscapes often including aspects of Indigenous Australian culture.
Lesueur National Park, Western Australia
Life was obviously very hard on board ship. Sickness was a big problem that faced the Baudin expedition, especially scurvy and dysentery. Just like the Flinders's expedition, Baudin stopped over in Timor, resting up at Kupang on 21 August 1801. Many of the crew were ill from scurvy or from dysentery (probably from the water supply on board ship). Baudin himself came down with Malaria. Lesueur was not spared either. He was bitten by a snake while chasing after some monkeys and became very ill. Can you imagine the kind of first aid that would have been used on him? After a large piece of his flesh was removed and the wound dressed, he was miraculously nursed back to health.
Upon completion of the expedition Lesueur returned to France in 1804. He and Peron set about the task of publishing the results of the expedition. When the two presented their large and impressive collection the professors at the Museum d'Histrorie Naturelle in Paris were very excited. In a crowded apartment near the Museum the two friends spent their time cataloguing specimens and getting their living plant and animal specimens used to living in a new country. Lesueur worked on producing watercolours from the sketches he had done in Australia. He exhibited some of them at the Museum in the hope that he might gain the place as their resident artist but he was not successful.
Aboriginal shelters at Geographe Bay, Western Australia, drawn by Lesueur
In 1806 the Emperor Napoleon himself gave permission for Lesueur and Peron to publish their findings in a Journal to be called Voyage de decouvertes aux Terres Australes, written by Peron and illustrated with forty plates by Lesueur. They were issued a pension or salary to support them as they worked on it The first volume appeared in 1807, which included many of Lesueur's drawings. Before the second volume was completed, Peron took ill and died in 1810. The directorship of the project was taken over by Louis de Freychinet, the map maker and surveyor who had been aboard the Naturaliste. The second volume was eventually published in 1816.
After the fall of Napoleon and the collapse of his Empire in 1815 Lesueur must have been worried that he would lose his pension. Having published a few articles in scientific magazines between 1813 and 1815 Lesueur joined the geologist William Maclure on a study tour of the United States of America. He ended up staying there for twenty two years. His journeys took him from the islands of the West Indies to the Great Lakes of North America. During his stay in the United States his reputation grew. He studied mainly fish and tortoises and published many articles in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He even had a go at living on a commune on the banks of the Ohio River! Lesueur was one of the pioneers of lithography (the art of writing or drawing on stone, and of printing the impression on paper) in the US.
He returned to France in 1837. After some extremely well received results of a study he made of the geology of the cliffs around Le Harve, Lesueur began to receive a lot more credit and praise. In 1844 he received the silver medal from the Societe libre des Beau-Arts in Paris. In recognition of a lifetime devoted to scientific research he was appointed Chevalier de l'Order de la Legion d'Honneur and the city of Le Harve offered him the job as Museum curator where he had donated half of his collection.
Lesueur died suddenly on 12 December 1846. He is widely regarded as a first class natural history painter. Although most of his taxidermy and jarred specimens from his exploration were destroyed during WW2 all of his artistic work remains intact at the Museums d'histoire naturelle in Paris and Le Harve.
The Baudin Expedition in Australian waters (1801-1803): the faunal legacy