The Art of Science: Baudins Voyagers 1800–1804. National Museum of Australia, Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula. Until June 24, 2018.

Short-beaked echidna — Tachyglossus aculeatus setosus by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, 1804–07, in The Art of Science: Baudins Voyagers 1800 – 1804. at the National Museum of Australia.

Photo: Museum of Natural History, Le Havre

In the traditional Anglocentric view of the exploration of Australia, Nicolas Baudins three-and-a-half year voyage of exploration between 1800 and 1804 barely rates a mention. However, his mission, personally authorised and generously funded by First Consul of France Napoleon Bonaparte returned to Europe with more than 100,000 specimens and a large number of fascinating drawings by the artists on board, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit.

Baudin, the commander-in-chief of the corvettes Géographe and Naturaliste, and his artists Lesueur and Petit, made their way to Australia in unusual circumstances.

Lesueur and Petit could be described as accidental artists. Nominally appointed as assistant gunners for the expedition, once the three official artists absconded to the Île de France (Mauritius) in April 1801, six months into this epic journey, they became the official pictorial chroniclers for the expedition. The survivors of the expedition returned to France in March 1804 and, three years later, the naturalist François Péron and Lesueur steered to fruition the publication of the first volume of the atlas Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes with 41 lavish plates.

Together with the other colonial powers, the French artists subscribed to the theory that by classifying and naming all that they encountered beyond the Pillars of Hercules in the new world, they would own it.


The images of flora and fauna were initially sketched and observed with greatest fidelity to actual appearances, then they classified them to the most exacting categories of the Linnaean system. Subsequently some were selected to be engraved, where they were subjected to the prevailing tastes in animal and botanical art of the period.

Aboriginal woman carrying her child on her shoulder,
Nicolas-Martin Petit, 1802 in The Art of Science: Baudins Voyagers 1800–1804 at the National Museum of Australia.

Photo: Museum of Natural History, Le Havre

While making ones way around the exhibition, it is sobering to see, time and again, species that existed in Australia for thousands of years but first recorded by Europeans only 200 years ago, now declared extinct because of the impact of these same Europeans.

When it came to the depiction of Indigenous Australians, in contrast with the English colonists, Baudins artists seemed conscious of the values of “liberté et égalité” and left some of the most empathetic images in first contact art. There was no perceived need to conquer or ridicule, but simply to record and to testify to their existence.

Attempts were made to write musical notation to local chants and possibly Indigenous people were invited to make their own drawings on the materials provided by the French travellers. One of the most fascinating exhibits on show at the National Museum is a very strange drawing of a kangaroo that appears nothing like the work of Lesueur or Petit and may be the earliest extant work on paper by an Indigenous Australian artist.

A selection of crystalline watercolour drawings, sketches and published colour plates, together with Baudins personal journal and artefacts from the voyage, make up this fascinating exhibition. The French artists were competent rather than outstanding in their abilities, but what is amazing is the encyclopaedic scope of their venture and the basic mindset to record and file data. They were looking at the unknown and their visual record was a way of making sense of it.

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur: Aboriginal people dancing near a fire</i>,
Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, 1802 in The Art of Science: Baudins Voyagers 1800–1804 at the National Museum of Australia.

Photo: Museum of Natural History, Le Havre.

Lesueurs black ink drawing of Aboriginal people dancing near a fire of 1802 has a much stronger sense of actuality footage than the later Corroboree scenes by John Glover or Joseph Lycett with their stage-set-like presentations.

The French artists objectified their subjects, whether a jellyfish, a short-beaked echidna or Eora man Mororé whose features, bodily scarification and headdress Petit rendered exactingly. What is also interesting in this exhibition is that we are shown the process of sanitation of imagery to fit in with prevailing European tastes, where the freshness of the sketch and watercolour drawing made in situ is translated into the classicising forms of genteel society and its refined tastes.

Baudin never returned to France, dying on the return journey on September 16, 1803 on the Île de France and much of his heritage has remained neglected until recent times. Nevertheless, one may pause to ponder what would have happened if the French had settled Australia instead of the British or if they had established a colony in Australia as had been speculated in France and suspected by the British. English authorities constantly pre-empted the French, planting the Union Jack at every opportunity to announce that the land was no longer vacant and that the welcome mat had been removed.

This Baudin exhibition has been on tour around Australia for a couple of years since it was launched at the South Australian Maritime Museum in June 2016.

Although some of the work is known through reproductions, thanks to the generosity of the Museum of Natural History at Le Havre, we are seeing many of these unique European impressions of early 19th century Australia for the first time.

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