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Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

(1778-1846)


Le Havre has its great poet - as great as he is unknown - of the sea. There could be no more splendid an adventure. A young man from Le Havre, at the end of the eighteenth century, son of a resourceful father [...] and a good draughtsman, signs up as a helmsman on the vessel Le Géographe, leaving for the Antipodes, an incredible endeavor; only Cuvier would appreciate the results of this audacious act. Later, in a second thrust of the imagination, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur leaves for America, to follow a geologist and philanthropist - living there from 1816 to 1837. “Crossing the ocean,” he tells us, “always attracted me.” His title? “I am,” he replies, “a naturalist painter.”

His drawings, the hundreds of drawings that speak to us of his twenty-year sojourn in the United States, are the truest living encyclopedia [...] The albums of Lesueur are an enchantment, the walks on which he takes us through the fields of sugar cane, in taverns, in the lead mines of Mississippi, through the huts of slaves [...]; when his work is better known, people will be amazed that such a treasure could have remained unheard of for so long.

- Edouard Herriot, La Porte Océane, 1932. Translated from French.     

 

 

 

 

 

Port of Sydney, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

Port of Sydney, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1807)
From the atlas accompanying François Péron's Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes

Portrait of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, by Charles Willson Peale, courtesy Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

Portrait of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, by Charles Willson Peale (1818)
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

 

The first biographies on Charles-Alexandre Lesueur


Until Ernest Hamy's biography of 1904, very few people had written about Charles-Alexandre Lesueur in France. A first biographical note on his scientific career appeared during his lifetime in 1842, written by Henri Deligny, the son of Lesueur's cousin. Unfortunately, the account contains very little information. In 1858, Lesueur's nephew Edouard Quesney co-authored a second biographical note, published in the Journal of Le Havre, which gave some complementary details about Lesueur's life. However, it contains many erroneous conjectures, and on the whole, cannot be considered trustworthy. As early as 1840, Lesueur had been included in the list of famous zoologists by William Swainson, but the British author did not know Lesueur personally. On the other hand, the memoir by Lesueur's American friend George Ord, published in 1849, two-and-a-half years after the Frenchman's death, can be considered reliable, with the exception of some awkward passages on New Harmony and the Baudin Expedition. This twenty-eight-page biography has nevertheless become a reference in Europe and the United States, and Hamy used it extensively to write his book.

In 2007, author and historian Bauke Ritsert Rinsma published the first volume of an entirely new biography of Lesueur, based on thousands of manuscripts located in the Le Havre Natural History Museum, the Paris Natural History Museum, the French National Archives, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the New Harmony Working Men's Institute, and many other European and American libraries. The first volume of Rinsma's biography covers the years 1778 to 1825, and the second volume, still to be printed, deals with the years 1825 to 1846. A third book, available in English (the other two books are in French), focusses on Lesueur's residence in the United States of America between 1816 and 1837. It contains many sketches, drawings and watercolors by Lesueur and tells the story of his life in Philadelphia and New Harmony as well as his involvement in Robert Owen's utopian enterprise. The title of the English book is Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier. It can be ordered on this website or via Amazon France. Do check out the books on this website, because there are different editions available!

Available books on Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

The book by Ernest Hamy


A first detailed biography of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was published in 1904, written by Ernest Théodore Hamy, president of the Société des Américanistes de Paris. It focusses on Lesueur's stay in America, from 1816 to 1837, but encompasses the scientist's childhood and death. Hamy was the first to use archival sources, such as Lesueur's manuscripts and albums, to write his biography. As a consequence, in spite of the many errors, Les Voyages du Naturaliste Ch. Alex. Lesueur dans l'Amérique du Nord remains a reference work to all persons interested in Lesueur's art and scientific work. Hamy's biography was translated into English in the 1960s by Milton Haber, edited by Hallock F. Raup, and published by the Kent State University Press in 1968 under the title: The Travels of the Naturalist Charles-A. Lesueur in North America, 1815-1837.

The French biography by Ernest Hamy

 

Biographical note by William Swainson


One of the first persons to write a biographical note about Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was Great Britain's William Swainson, in his Biography of Zoologists (1840). We have put the content of his article online because it shows how Lesueur's contemporaries viewed his artistic talent and scientific work.

Read the biographical note by William Swainson

 

First short biography on Lesueur in France


In France, a short biographical note on the scientific career of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was published during his lifetime in 1842. It was written by H. Deligny, the son of Lesueur's cousin Sophie Félicité Vieillard. This article was published the next year in the Annuaire Normand under the title "Notice sur M. Charles Lesueur, Né au Havre, Naturaliste et Peintre d'Histoire Naturelle" (Caen : 1843).

Read the biographical note by Henri Deligny

The memoir by George Ord


On April 6, 1849, George Ord read his "Memoir of Charles Alexander [sic] Lesueur" to the members of the American Philosophical Society. The first eighteen pages of this memoir rely heavily on the official narrative of the Baudin Expedition (1800-1804), contained in the two-volume  Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes, written by François Péron and Henry Freycinet (first published in 1807 and 1815). Péron's account, however, is not always accurate, which becomes evident when comparing his story with the journals of the other members of the expedition. Moreover, the two volumes only cover four years of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's life and do not provide much detail about events posterior to 1804. As a consequence, when George Ord published his memoir in 1849, he only gave little information about the years 1805-1815, i.e. the period when Lesueur lived in Paris.

Ord met the French scientist at the end of 1816, when Lesueur settled in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the active collaboration between Ord and Lesueur from 1816 to 1825 is only briefly mentioned in his memoir. Things are even worse for the period that starts in January 1826 because Ord is much biased against Robert Owen's utopia in New Harmony in which Lesueur participated. As a consequence, there are many inaccurate statements in this part of Ord's biography, which should not be trusted blindly, even though they are based on real events and Ord's regular correspondence with Lesueur.

Read the memoir by George Ord

 

 

Portrait of George Ord, by John Neagle, courtesy Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

Portrait of George Ord, by John Neagle (1829)
Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

House of C.-A. Lesueur in New Harmony, photo by Ritsert Rinsma

House on Church Street, New Harmony, where Lesueur lived from 1827 to 1834.
Photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

 

The article by Oursel, Quesney and Marcel


Edouard Quesney, one of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's nephews and heirs, co-authored a biographical note published in the Journal of Le Havre, dated July 21, 1858. It is a summary of major events, told by three individuals having personally known Lesueur during the last years of his life. Logically, the passage on his stay in Le Havre is particularly interesting. Unfortunately, things are very different for Lesueur's stay in America. The only source the authors seem to know is George Ord's "Memoir of Charles Alexander [sic] Lesueur" and no mention is made of any discussion with Lesueur himself. It would seem the French scientist talked little about his busy years in Philadelphia and New Harmony, and as a consequence, the 1858 article is rather incomplete, in spite of its usefulness.

Read the article by Oursel, Quesney and Marcel

 

Lesueur's sketchbooks of the frontier: Eyewitness to Utopia


After courageously defending the city of Paris in 1814 and 1815, first to protect Napoleon, next to get rid of him, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur was in need of a better world. A philanthropic businessman provided the opportunity. Enthused by his scientific knowledge, William Maclure brought the French explorer to the United States. There he met the Founding Fathers and all the great minds of his time. Every knowledgeable American agreed to this: no one knew more than Lesueur. He was a living encyclopedia, the most talented student of Georges Cuvier. His contributions to American science were revolutionary. Then, suddenly, history forgot about him when together with a group of intellectuals he created an experimental scientific utopia. Abandoned by most of his friends on the American frontier, he initiated its geological exploration and systematic discovery.

Read it all in: Bauke Ritsert Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur’s Sketches of the Frontier, drawings and sketches by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, foreword by Edouard Philippe, Donald E. Pitzer and Ralph G. Schwarz, translated by Leslie J. Roberts (Heuqueville, France: Heiligon, 2019).

The honorable Edouard Philippe, MP, Prime Minister of France, declared about Eyewitness to Utopia: "I am delighted that the present memoir reveals the immensity of this historical figure from Le Havre."

Dr. Donald E. Pitzer, Director Emeritus, Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana, wrote: "By happy coincidence, Lesueur’s fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville took his own investigative tour of the United States in 1831-1832 while Lesueur was still in New Harmony. Tocqueville articulated his astute observations of the country’s social and political institutions and practices in his incisive Democracy in America, published in 1835. Lesueur made a similar contribution with his incomparable sketches, documenting America’s natural and built environment, its ancient and living wildlife, and the utopian vision of its people. Two centuries later, Ritsert Rinsma’s Eyewitness to Utopia presents Lesueur’s artistic gift to the New World in its most complete rendition and elevates this artist, scientist and communitarian to his own proper status among the most notable figures in the early Republic."

Dr. Ralph Grayson Schwarz, Founding President of Historic New Harmony, wrote: "In this groundbreaking book, Ritsert Rinsma, with his comprehensive knowledge and acute perceptions, has succeeded masterfully in capturing the significance of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, illuminating the context of his meaningful American sketchbooks."

 

Cover of the book Eyewitness to Utopia by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

Cover of the book Eyewitness to Utopia, written by Ritsert Rinsma, and illustrated by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, showing New Harmony, Indiana

Cover of the book Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Painter and Naturalist: A Forgotten Treasure

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Painter and Naturalist: A Forgotten Treasure, by Gabrielle Baglione and Cédric Crémière.
Lesueur's illustrations are beautiful but the captions sometimes inaccurate, and the text and maps are flawed.

 

A missed opportunity... Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Painter and Naturalist: A Forgotten Treasure


Recognition for C.-A. Lesueur's scientific contributions - be it in France, Australia, Tasmania, Africa or North America - is growing steadily, mainly thanks to the hard work of the former curator of the Lesueur Collection of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre, Madame Jacqueline Bonnemains, who spent her entire career organizing, cataloguing and transcribing the immense archive of papers, letters and drawings the naturalist left behind. The catalogues and articles she published from 1978 to 2005 allow researchers to dig deep into the life of this energetic, artistic Frenchman as new light is being shed on his many accomplishments.

In September 2009, the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle du Havre published a major compilation of Madame Bonnemains's lifelong efforts in a highly illustrated 400-page album Charles-Alexandre Lesueur Lesueur: Peintre Voyageur, un Trésor Oublié (Paris: Editions de Conti, 2009), translated into English under the title Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Painter and Naturalist: A Forgotten Treasure (Paris: MFK Editions, 2016). The publication contains many drawings and watercolors from different periods of Lesueur's existence, accompanied by the precise transcriptions and scientific identifications found in Jacqueline Bonnemains's catalogues.

Curiously, Madame Bonnemains is not mentioned as a co-author, and no foot- or endnote hints to her preparatory work, even though it makes up 70% of the book. Moreover, this otherwise valuable compilation of Lesueur's art includes introductory sections (for each period) which undermine Jacqueline Bonnemains's lifelong work with factual and historical errors. To mention just a few: the French edition attributes Lesueur's portrait to V. Gribayedoff instead of Charles Willson Peale; the portrait of Lesueur's grandmother is mistaken for that of his mother; Lesueur's bust is wrongly attributed to "Madame Mezzara" and not to her son Joseph Ernest Amédée Mezzara (1820-1901); two drawings by painter Louis Lesueur (1746-1803) are reproduced (CL 46 260, 46 263, MHNH) and presented as artwork by C.-A. Lesueur; technical terms like "steamboat," "flatboat" and "keelboat" are mixed up, and many dates and place names are approximate or erroneous.

Few other sources than Jacqueline Bonnemains's catalogues and publications seem to have been consulted by Gabrielle Baglione and Cédric Crémière, yet the former curator's name is missing, except in the preface by the mayor of Le Havre (removed from the international edition) and in the book's bibliography, which refers to five minor contributions. None of these issues have been addressed in the album's English translation, apart from Lesueur's portrait, which is now almost correctly attributed to "Charles Wilson [sic] Peale."

The quality of most of the reproduced artwork is satisfactory, but unfortunately Lesueur's interesting sketches of hundreds of American towns and villages he visited between 1816 and 1837 are absent. The views that are present have to share the same page with two or three other images, and sometimes up to six drawings of American scenes and sceneries are lined up together, making it impossible to perceive Lesueur's wonderful details. Instead we have mosaics of tiny pictures in an oversized book.

 

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's biography


In 1818 the American painter Charles Willson Peale, curator of Philadelphia's first natural history museum, wrote about his portrait of naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (which hangs in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, now part of Drexel University): "I have put into the museum a portrait of Lesueur who perhaps has the most knowledge of Natural History of any man in the world." The famous Swiss ichthyologist Louis Agassis deemed Lesueur's contributions second only to his own, and English zoologist William swainson declared:

"Inferior and commonplaced artists are attached to the establishment of the French Museum, while the Raffaelle of zoological painters was suffered to emigrate, and pursued his professional career as a private teacher in Philadelphia, where, we believe, he now is. [...] It is deeply to be regretted, that his works are so scattered, in collections of papers hardly ever seen in Europe; and that no one volume will hereafter point out the matchless excellence of Le Sueur."

Born in Le Havre in 1778, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur traveled around the world, exploring Europe, Australia, South Africa and North America, before taking residence in Philadelphia, where he lived for ten years. There he befriended the greatest minds of his time, those working in the direct entourage of Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States from 1801 to 1808. In spite of his efforts, and unlike Bougainville and Humboldt, this great explorer and artist would soon be forgotten by history. "What can be done in regard to Lesueur?" inquired American entomologist Thaddeus William Harris, a professor at Harvard College, and its university librarian from 1831 to 1856, "[as he] seems forever lost to his friends and to the world, after a debut the most brilliant. Will he too pass away without leaving behind him any memorials of his eventful career, or any one to record the history of his life and labours?"

Published in 2007, and entirely based on primary sources, the first volume of the biography Alexandre Lesueur, written by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma, recounts the travels and tribulations of this scientist from France in an innovative and complete way. Together with his patron William Maclure, Charles-Alexandre pursued the noblest of Thomas Jefferson's objectives, that of acquiring Useful Knowledge and disseminating it to the greatest number of people. This fascinating human adventure started on the day when a twenty-two year-old man from Le Havre courageously decided to change his destiny.

 

Alexandre Lesueur, tome 1, by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma

Cover of the book by Ritsert Rinsma, showing Market Street, Philadelphia, drawn by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

Cover of catalogue 42, Lesueur in North America, by Jacqueline Bonnemains

"Dossier 42" of the series Charles-Alexandre Lesueur in North America was Jacqueline Bonnemains's last catalogue. She published it just before her retirement in 2005.

 

The catalogues and views of Lesueur in America


Jacqueline Bonnemains, former curator of the Lesueur Collection in the Natural History Museum of Le Havre, chose the drawing of a tree on a rock (Lesueur Collection # 40 217), labeled Vues Pittoresques des Etats-Unis d'Amérique (Picturesque Views of the United States of America), to illustrate the cover of her eight published catalogues entitled Charles-Alexandre Lesueur en Amérique du Nord, 1816-1837. She also prepared the catalogues for Lesueur's travels to Australia, Tasmania, South Africa, France, Great Britain and the Antilles, which remain unpublished because the series was discontinued by her successor after Madame Bonnemains retired in 2005.

In 1978 Jacqueline Bonnemains began a worldwide correspondence with the principal scholars and institutions interested in Lesueur's documentary legacy. These exchanges led to the creation of a considerable library made up of a few thousand publications, related in different ways to Lesueur's œuvre. A first inventory was published in March 1984. This publication marked the beginning of the series of catalogues on Lesueur in North America. The rest of the available information in the museum library mainly concerns Captain Nicolas Baudin's Voyage to the Antipodes, including Lesueur's scientific work in Australia and Tasmania, which is well documented. Some other books concern Lesueur's stay in the United States of America.

As mentioned above, for the period from 1816 to 1837, there are eight published "dossiers," numbered 39 to 46. Each "dossier" or catalogue consists of one or two volumes. Inside are a selection of plates as well as the full description of each and every drawing, letter and watercolor in the Lesueur Collection for the American period. "Dossier 45" contains extracts of Lesueur's correspondence, whereas the other catalogues are organized by geographical themes: # 39 retraces Lesueur's trips in the northeastern United States (1816-1822); # 40 has Lesueur's views of Philadelphia and the surrounding area (1816-1825); # 41 presents all the plates of Lesueur's trip down the Ohio onboard the Philanthropist, as well as views of New Harmony and towns of the area (1825-1834); # 42 contains the drawings and accounts of Lesueur's excursion with Gerard Troost in 1826 to and in the State of Missouri; # 43 has the pictures of their fieldtrip to Tennessee (1831) and Lesueurs' travels on the Mississippi River (1828-1837); # 44 supplements # 43 with views of the lower part of the Mississippi and drawings of boats and people; # 45, as already stated, contains Lesueur's correspondence; and # 46 completes the series with a variety of sketches and lithographs of different regions, put together in one file, because of their unusual size (for storage reasons).

 

 

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