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29 March 2018

Rare images of Australian fauna commissioned by Napoleon on display in Canberra

A glossy coated platypus, a finely rendered echidna and an ethereal jellyfish. These stunning depictions of Australian fauna are part of an exhibition of vivid watercolours made by French artists 200 years ago during Nicholas Baudin’s scientific expedition to map Australia, on show at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Launched today, The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 18001804 is the result of a partnership between the Natural History Museum, Le Havre, France, and six Australian museums, which has brought these exquisite works to Australia.

The paintings by Baudin’s artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit, provide a rare view of Australia’s extraordinary fauna at a time when the region was largely unknown to Europeans.

First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte authorised and generously funded Baudin’s expedition to chart Australia’s ‘unknown’ southern coast, to study the natural environment, and to record encounters with Indigenous peoples.

The voyage took three-and-half years and was fraught with division, desertion and death, but it was a triumph for science, returning with over 100,000 specimens and having discovered more than 2500 new species.

National Museum director Dr Mathew Trinca said the evocative portraits of NSW and Tasmanian Indigenous Australians, which are a feature of the exhibition, record some of the earliest encounters with Europeans.

‘These extraordinary works provide rare insights into life in Australia before European settlement and I am excited to be able to share them with visitors,’ said Dr Trinca.

National Museum curator Cheryl Crilly said although they are more than two centuries old, ‘the illustrations feel contemporary, with their bold compositions, rich colours and attention to detail'.

‘The anatomy of a starfish, the quills of a ‘silky echidna’ and the fine feathers of a kingfisher are sketched and painted in precise detail, while irritable and ferocious anthropomorphic fish startle and amuse,’ Ms Crilly said.

The precious works also include watercolours of strange marine creatures and drawings of mammals such as Kangaroo Island’s dwarf emu, which has now disappeared.

The exhibition also showcases Baudin’s personal journal, alongside beautiful coloured plates from the first edition copy of the official account of the expedition, Voyage de Decouvertes aux Terres Australes.

The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800–1804 is on show from 30 March until 24 June 2018.

Media contact: Tracy Sutherland, (02) 6208 5338 / 0438 620 710 or media@nma.gov.au

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