« Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, a gifted naturalist explorer. »
Interview with Gabrielle Baglione who manages the Charles-Alexandre Lesueur collection at Muséum d’histoire naturelle du Havre.
Hello Gabrielle, thanks so much for agreeing to join us for the fourth edition of Fanatalk: a conversation between nature enthusiasts.
You work for the natural history museum in Le Havre, and your role involves managing the Charles-Alexandre Lesueur art collection. He was a 19th-century naturalist explorer whose life and works are absolutely fascinating. He was instrumental in founding the museum after he bequeathed a huge variety of natural history specimens to his city. We are delighted to be able to learn more about him by talking to you.
Fan. First of all, how did you come to work in this very particular role?
G.B. I studied art history and specialised in art from Oceania. So I came across Charles-Alexandre Lesueur through his work on Voyage aux terres australes (voyage to southern lands). That is when I heard about this collection and how I came to work with it for several years. As I also studied museology, the city of Le Havre hired me to ensure that the original drawings from this collection could be made available to the public.
Fan. Tell us about the Baudin expedition, the famous “voyage to southern lands”.
The expedition was commissioned by the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and was organisedby the natural history museum in Paris in March 1800. There was very little time to prepare because the ship left Le Havre on 19 October that same year. And yet it was an extremely ambitious expedition with two main objectives:
- Map out the south-eastern part of New Holland (present-day Australia) as well as Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania),
- Collect specimens (animals, plants, minerals, etc.) to continue the inventory of all living and non-living species in nature.
The two ships used for the expedition were called Géographe and Naturaliste.
Nearly 100,000 samples were brought back for the purpose of recording various species. The expedition’s contribution to science, according to Georges Cuvier, exceeded the three voyages by James Cook in the Pacific that had taken place between 20 and 30 years earlier. There was a third anthropological objective that was fairly new at the time. The scientists on the expedition had received very precise instructions on how to study the natives and their social behaviour. The brand new – and very short-lived – Société des Observateurs de l’Homme therefore gave that task to the experienced captain Nicolas Baudin, who was focused on the natural sciences and botany in particular. He set off with 200 people, including about forty scientists from every field of science, around two or three for each discipline, and told them to bring back as many samples as they could.
They all knew that they may not ever return. In fact Captain Baudin himself died of tuberculosis in 1803 on what used to be called Île de France – now Mauritius – on their journey back, but the group’s thirst for discovery and desire to record the wonders of the natural world meant that they persevered.
Fan. In four years, including the round trip, the expedition was incredibly effective!
Yes, especially because the trip took seven months just to get there, with several stopovers …In terms of physical anthropology, Georges Cuvier gave specific advice for observing humans. He explains that scientists could, if the opportunity arose, bring back human samples, but nobody did. In matters of social anthropology, directives were given by Joseph-Marie De Gérando for the observation of manners and customs. The scholars tried to follow these instructions, but it was difficult with the aboriginal groups that they sometimes met only during a stopover, during the brief time it took to map out the geography of a coastal area.
The explorers brought back 206 objects and gave them to Joséphine de Beauharnais but there is no trace of these objects. All that remains from their journey around Tasmania and continental Australia are the very precise drawings by Lesueur. They were so precise that contemporary Tasmanian artists were able to find the techniques that were used and reproduce the lost objects. Oral transmission suffered enormously during some disastrous events in Tasmanian history. The population struggled with disease and deportations due to slavery practices in parts of South Australia. Two hundred years later the people were able to move back west and the experience must have been extraordinary!
I have met several Tasmanian artists who all carry around a reproduction of a certain drawing by Lesueur, because they consider it to be fundamental in their culture. It is extremely touching and more than justifies conserving and presenting these works. There is evidence right now that the samples collected during this expedition still have a lot to tell us. I am actually working on an exhibition on that subject, involving contemporary Tasmanian objects.
Fan. In what way did Charles-Alexandre Lesueur demonstrate his talents?
It was impossible to imagine that such an expedition, so far away, would go ahead without someone keeping arecord of everything the explorers would see. Three official illustrators were therefore appointed but they got off the ship at the first stopover on the Île de France. Two other artists who were responsible for managing Captain Baudin’s personal records were then promoted: Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and his companion Nicolas Martin-Petit, who had been trained in the studio belonging to Jacques-Louis David, and who was responsible for creating the portraits of the aborigines, or les naturels as they were called at the time. Nicolas Martin-Petit died followng an accident a few months after the Géographe returned in March 1804. He was young but had been affected by the very gruelling trip. Involving tropical diseases and nutritional deficiencies, it was probably the deadliest scientific expedition of the time.
Lesueur was one of the scholars and assistants who managed to return in a healthy enough condition to take care of publishing the results officially. He handled the drawings, while the writing was entrusted to the zoologist and anthropologist François Péron. They went to Bonaparte, who at that time had become Emperor, and handed him the first ever copy of la relation du voyage de découvertes aux terres australes, which was published from 1807. The maps were printed in 1811 and constituted the first complete cartography of Australia. Moreover, many places in Australia and Tasmania bear the names of the scientists from this expedition in tribute to those that died, and the work they carried out, including Cape Lesueur. Intrigued by the French names, more and more Australians are now learning about and becoming fascinated by the history of this expedition.
Charles-Alexandre Lesueur lived in Paris with François Péron and worked on publishing his drawings. He kept the drawings with him, as well as the ones by Nicolas Martin-Petit, so he could work on them. That took a long time. There are often up to four drawings of the same individual, which can be considered preparatory studies. Charles-Alexandre Lesueur liked to work on vellum (the skins of stillborn calves), because of its smooth and even texture. The medium allowed him to produce very precise renderings and enhance his watercolours.
Weakened by pulmonary tuberculosis, which he contracted during the expedition, François Péron decided to follow advice from his doctors and spent the winter of 1809 on the Côte d’Azur. Lesueur went along with him and spent his time drawing on their journey through France. Tirelessly filling his notebooks, he would sketch landscapes, cities, local people, fauna and flora. They settled in Nice in the February. While Péron rested, Lesueur would go out on boats. He brought back several Mediterranean species, which fascinated both men, especially the samples of zoophytes and molluscs. With relentless curiosity, they would marvel at the diversity before their eyes, and with the same dedication they worked hard on describing and illustrating what they found.
Fan. During the time he spent in Nice, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur produced his finest work, and in our view, the most remarkable. His vellums of jellyfish demonstrate unprecedented precision, finesse and realism. But his adventures were far from over…
Sadly François Péron eventually died of tuberculosis. But Lesueur kept going, though he decided to return home following the death of his friend.
He then split his time between Paris and Le Havre and sought to obtain an official post at the museum. In 1815, an American geologist by the name of William Maclure arrived in France to find out more about recent scientific progress. He was a rich businessman and philanthropist who spent some of his fortune on science. He suggested that the young and talented Charles-Alexandre go with him to North America to work on recording and classifying the local animal species. Lesueur jumped at the chance and signed a two-year contract. He became a correspondent for the natural history museum in Paris and a naturalist explorer once more.
The adventure lasted twenty-one years, during which he spent his time crisscrossing the Great American East. From the Canadian border to New Orleans, he covered every single state, navigating the great rivers and meticulously listing all the species he encountered, showing a particular liking for turtles and fish.
When he returned in 1837, France had been through some huge changes. Repeated political unrest had weakened the country, which was trying to bring its industry up to the level of its English rivals. His hometown of Le Havre had experienced these in-depth transformations first hand. Like some other large French cities, it established its own natural history museum, which was made possible by the collection bequeathed to it by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. He was appointed its first director in 1845, but never managed to occupy the position because he died at the end of 1846, just before the museum opened.
Fan. How is this exceptional collection preserved?
We like to think that we have made him immortal! In any case we do whatever we can to keep it safe and protected for as long as possible… During the Second World War, the collection was transferred to a secure location by the curator at the time, which was a smart move. The other specimens in the museum were mostly destroyed in the bombings.
Since then, we have implemented a very strict protocol. When the specimens have been on display for three months, they are then systematically put into storage for three years of rest, protected from light. The works are restored by experts before each new exhibition. We have just published an article about this subject on our blog, you can go and read it.
Fan. Do you send the collection to different places?
G.B. Never all of it, but we did organise a large-scale travelling exhibition in 2016 with the Australian Embassy inFrance. It was called L’oeil et la main (the eye and the hand), and it retraced the journey to the southern lands. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Baudin expedition, 400 drawings by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas Martin-Petit were sent to Australia and Tasmania. They then went on a two-year journey to the country’s main cities: Adelaide, Launceston, Hobart, Sydney, Canberra and Perth.
Fan. Have you ever thought about partnering with any other French institutions such as the national museum of natural history or the jellyfish section of the Paris Aquarium for example?
G.B. Yes of course, every chance we get is an opportunity to share the wonders of the collection. This month,the Musée d’Orsay is opening a major exhibition entitled Les origines du monde – L’invention de la nature au siècle de Darwin (the origins of the world, the invention of nature in Darwin’s century). This event will take a look back on the historic upheaval of the 19th century, where science and the arts came together, and promises to be a huge success. Nine drawings from the Lesueur collection will be exhibited there.
Fan. That’s right, it’s the MUST-SEE event for the year! When is the next Lesueur exhibition at the natural history museum in Le Havre and what is the theme?
G.B. The Australian Embassy in France is launching a programme between June and October 2021 called “Australia now France 2021”. As part of the programme, the museum will run an exhibit entitled “Australia”. Objects from both old and contemporary collections will be presented to mark the friendship between the two countries, both past and future. Visitors will be able to find out more about discoveries, encounters, environments, animals, distances, imaginary creations, etc. Some of the graphic arts collection will of course be on display during the exhibition.
Fan. We can’t wait to see it! After lockdown measures were eased, many French people went back out to see nature this summer, and destinations such as the Ardèche, Auvergne or the Cévennes were more popular than usual. Have you also noticed a resurgence of public interest in the museum and its exhibitions?
G.B. It is true that the public came out of lockdown feeling frustrated and cut off from culture generally. People came rushing back to the museum when it reopened. It was so wonderful to see families return, eager to find out more about the natural sciences. The museum in Le Havre is designed for a very young audience, starting at two or three years old for some of its attractions. We always strive to design exhibitions and events that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.
Fan. Tell us a surprising anecdote from your career…
G.B. The bust you can see behind me is of Captain Nicolas Baudin.Commissioned by an association that works to protect the heritage of the voyage to the southern lands, this Australian sculpture was presented to the city of Le Havre and other key locations from the expedition. It had been installed in front of the entrance to the port from which the expedition left, and was designed to ensure that Commander Baudin was never forgotten. Unfortunately, the bust was vandalised. It will be restored over the coming years, but in the meantime it is in storage… For the moment, Nicolas Baudin will remain forgotten!
Fan. There is no doubt that you will be able to tell his story in the same way as you told the story of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, whose work you admire and share with so much enthusiasm. Thank you Gabrielle for this very interesting conversation. We’ll be sure to find out what happens with the collection and we look forward to hearing more news from the Le Havre natural history museum. Keep on doing your remarkable work as an ambassador for nature.
Translation from French by Ruth Simpson
If you’d like to learn more about Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, here are some links to his treasures ▾
La collection Lesueur en cinq questions
French interview of Gabrielle Baglione (4 min)
Peintre voyageur, un trésor oublié
Auteur : Cédric Crémière, Gabrielle Baglione
Éditeur : Editions Conti2009
Sur la côte d’Azur
Carnet de voyage de Lesueur et Péron, du Havre à Nice en 1809
Auteur : Gabrielle Baglione
Editeur : Editions Conti2009
Méduses / Jellyfish
Grand Prix du Beau-Livre 2015 de l’Académie de Marine
Auteur : Illustrations de C-A Lesueur – Textes de François Péron, Gabrielle Baglione, Cédric Crémière, Jacqueline Goy-Trabut, Stéphane Schmitt – Traduction : Judith Bentley.
Editeur : Muséum du Havre – Editions MkF2014
Did you like this interview? Please subscribe to our newsletter to hear about our posts.