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Napoleon Bonaparte's Artists Capture the Wonders of Australia's People, Animals and Landscapes

15 May 2015

Early Paintings by French Explorers Come to Canberra for the First Time

Exquisite illustrations by French artists made during Nicolas Baudin's 1800s exploration of Australia will come to Australia as the result of a deal clinched in Canberra today between the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre, France, and six Australian museums.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the French and Australian museums, stunning original watercolours and drawings by Baudin expedition artists Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit will be showcased at venues across the country.

The French artists explored Australian waters between 1800 and 1804 with the expedition of Baudin, who was commissioned by Napoléon Bonaparte, First Consul of France, to investigate Nouvelle Hollande – particularly its uncharted southern coast.

As Baudin's two ships charted the continent's coastline, the artists captured the wonders of a new land in vivid watercolours of animals, people, and landscapes.

The working title of the planned exhibition is Napoleon's Artists in Australia. Most of the anticipated 100 illustrations have never been displayed in Australia before. The project was instigated by the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre and the South Australian Maritime Museum (Adelaide). It also involves the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney), the Western Australian Museum (Perth), the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston), the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (Hobart), and the National Museum of Australia (Canberra).

Minister for the Arts, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, welcomed the collaboration.

"This partnership will allow audiences across the country to see unique depictions of life in Australia though French eyes," said Senator Brandis.

National Museum of Australia director Dr Mathew Trinca said that the illustrations are a rare window into the lives of the First Australians before European settlement.

"These illustrations provide unique insights into life in Australia before European colonisation and I'm excited to be involved in bringing them to the country," said Dr Trinca.

A delegation from France, led by the Mayor of Le Havre, Edouard Philippe, was on hand in Canberra to sign the MOU.

Museum of Natural History director, Cedric Cremiere said: "It is wonderful that after that first French encounter with Australia more than 200 years ago, we can share these discoveries and sense of wonder with Australian audiences."

The French Ambassador to Australia, Christophe Lecourtier, said Lesueur was a magnificent artist, a pioneering naturalist and an astute observer.

"These extraordinary illustrations will be showcased in six Australian museums thanks to a fruitful partnership with the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle du Havre – which was created to house Lesueur's work – and for which we have the pleasure to thank, the Mayor of Le Havre, Mr Edouard Philippe. Mr Philippe is here with us today on his first ever visit to Australia. This is an extraordinary opportunity for the public to discover Australia, as the first explorers and French navigators did, more than 200 years ago," said Ambassador Lecourtier.

Illustrations featured in the exhibition will include: evocative portraits of Indigenous Australians in NSW and Tasmania; images of Indigenous baskets and watercraft; whimsical watercolours of strange marine invertebrates; highly accurate profiles of the coastline; and drawings of Australian mammals such as Kangaroo Island's dwarf emu, which have now disappeared.

The exhibition will open in Adelaide in July 2016, before touring the country until May 2018. It will open in Canberra at the National Museum of Australia in September 2017.

For more information please contact Tracy Sutherland, (02) 6208 5338 / 0438 620 710 or media@nma.gov.au

Speeches by Minister Brandis, Mr Philippe and Dr Trinca, followed by the signing of the MOU.

Read the transcript of the speeches

A sample of illustrations

Images courtesy of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre.