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Lesueur, Charles Alexandre (1778-1846) | Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections

Name: Lesueur, Charles Alexandre (1778-1846)

Historical Note:

Artist and naturalist Charles Alexandre Lesueur was born on January 1, 1778 in Le Havre, France. The son of a French naval officer, Lesueur attended the School of Hydrography where he learned draughtsmanship and applied graphic techniques. In 1800, at age twenty-three, Lesueur sailed from his home at Le Havre, France, on an expedition to Australia and Tasmania. He had been hired by Commander Nicolas Baudin to pictorially document the journey, drawing the various specimens and species they would encounter. As the journey progressed, Lesueur became more of a specialist in drawing animals. He began a friendship with the zoologist on board, François Péron. Under Péron's guidance, Lesueur learned the art of taxidermy, along with the importance of color and attention to detail. Apart from completing drawings of many animals, he produced a variety of landscapes often including aspects of indigenous Australian culture. Péron would sometimes distract the indigenous Australians while Lesueur sketched them. During the four-year expedition, Lesueur and naturalist François Péron collected approximately 100,000 zoological specimens representing 2,500 new species, and Lesueur made 1,500 drawings. In 1804, after the expedition ended, Lesueur returned to France. He and Péron began work to publish the results of the expedition. When the two presented their large and impressive collection, the professors at the Muséum d'Histrorie Naturelle in Paris were very excited. Lesueur worked on producing watercolors from the sketches he had done in Australia and he exhibited some of the works at the Muséum.

In 1806, the Emperor Napoleon gave permission for Lesueur and Péron to publish their findings in a journal to be called Voyage de découvertes aux Terres Australes, written by Péron and illustrated with forty plates by Lesueur. They were issued a pension to support them as they worked on it. The first volume appeared in 1807, and included many of Lesueur's drawings. Before the second volume was completed, Péron became ill and died in 1810. The directorship of the project was taken over by map maker and surveyor Louis de Freychinet. The second volume was eventually published in 1816.

After the fall of Napoleon and the collapse of his Empire in 1815, Lesueur may have become worried that he would lose his pension. Having published a few articles in scientific magazines between 1813 and 1815, Lesueur joined geologist William Maclure on a study tour of the United States. His journeys took him from the islands of the West Indies to the Great Lakes of North America. He traveled widely in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England from 1817 to 1828. Lesueur is believed to be the first to study the fish of the Great American Lakes and the first to illustrate many other animals in the United States. After traveling together, William Maclure persuaded Lesueur to join him in Philadelphia. Lesueur was one of the founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia. He remained in the city, working as an art instructor, for almost ten years, during which time he established a reputation as a naturalist, engraver, and teacher of drawing.

In 1825, Maclure and Robert Owen persuaded Lesueur to join them at New Harmony, their newly founded commune in Indiana. Lesueur left along with other intellectuals and artists for Indiana aboard Maclure's "Boatload of Knowledge" in 1825, arriving in New Harmony in early 1826. There, except for his occasional travels, he remained until 1837, teaching and lecturing on art, sketching for scientific purposes, and participating in archaeological explorations. During his stay at New Harmony, Lesueur made numerous sketches, some of which have been published in the Journals of the Academy at Philadelphia. Lesueur also published works on natural history. One highlight of his years in New Harmony was a visit of Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied (Germany), and artist Karl Bodmer in 1832-1933.

Among Lesueur's art pupils was his niece Virginia Dupalais, for whom he acted as parental guardian. Lucy Sistare Say, wife of Thomas Say, also taught drawing in the school at New Harmony with Lesueur. Although he received no income for his work, Lesueur was able to live off a pension he received from the French government for his scientific data and specimens he sent back from America. Lesueur became the most eminent artist in the state of Indiana at the time. He is thought to be the first artist to sketch extensively the scenes of western Indiana. His sketches and drawings along the Ohio River and at New Harmony document daily life of the 1820s and 1830s in the region. Lesueur is also recognized as one of the pioneers of lithography in the United States.

In 1837, following the demise of the New Harmony commune, Lesueur returned to France by way of New Orleans. In 1844, he was awarded the silver medal from the Société libre des Beau-Arts in Paris. In recognition of a lifetime devoted to scientific research he was appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre Royal de la Légion d'Honneur. In 1846, Lesueur was appointed curator of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle du Havre (Museum of Natural History at Le Havre, France), which was created to house his many drawings and paintings. The majority of his art work remains part of the Le Havre Museum's collection today. Lesueur died in France on December 12, 1846. He is buried at Le Havre.

Sources: Peat, Wilbur D. Pioneer Painters of Indiana. Indianapolis, IN: Art Association of Indianapolis, 1954. Elliott, Josephine Mirabella and Jane Thompson Johansen. Charles-Alexandre Lesueur: Premier Naturalist and Artist, c. 1999.

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