From a historical perspective, this painting is of great significance as a rare example of early nineteenth- century Pacific voyage art. More specifically, its rarity is underlined by the fact that there are no finished watercolours by de Sainson held in public collections in either Australia or New Zealand. Despite the best efforts of David Scott Mitchell, Sir William Dixson and
Rex Nan Kivell – the latter of whom ‘at one stage spent 35 years tracking down a painting ascribed to Louis Auguste de Sainson’ in his quest for a ‘prize acquisition’ (Sasha Grishin, Paradise possessed: the Rex Nan Kivell Collection. Canberra : NLA, 1998, p. 6) – the only original works by de Sainson from the voyage of the Astrolabe held by an Australian institution are the group of unsigned preparatory pencil sketches contained alongside many signed and dated sketches by Arago from the circumnavigation in the Uranie in an album in the SLNSW (Accession no. PX*D 150) purchased from Otto Lange in 1930. In France, the BnF holds 25 of de Sainson’s finished watercolours (see further below).

Yet in addition to its rarity, the painting also has a greatintrinsic importance. For two reasons, it stands out fromall of the other voyage paintings by de Sainson which were ultimately selected for publication as engravings in the Atlas to the official voyage account of the Dumont d’Urville expedition. The sheer complexity and density of the composition – an attempt to interpret the wild lushness of the jungle vegetation – instantly distinguishes it from the other works. Furthermore, this painting strives to capture a transcendent moment of contemplation (echoing Dumont d’Urville’s own reflective commentary on his crew’s experience at Carteret Harbour – see below) rather than to document a quotidian event or scene. The painting has a profound spiritual dimension: as a meditation on our place in vast and powerful Nature, evoking the wonderment of Europeans who are encountering the sublime beauty of the lush, tropical environment for the first time, it can almost be viewed as a philosophical statement by the artist. It is a work that bears the hallmarks of European Romanticism.

SAINSON, Louis-Auguste de (1800-1874)
The artist with companions from the Astrolabe in the rainforest at Carteret Harbour, New Ireland (1827). Watercolour and ink on paper, 398 x 287 mm (entire sheet); contemporary inscription in ink to verso: 80. Vue du grand torrent et d’une forêt / Hâvre Carteret; the artist’s own re-worked section (80 x 110 mm, irregular) carefully pasted on at lower left; short closed tear at right edge; extremely well preserved.

French watercolour artist and draughtsman Louis-Auguste de Sainson was born in Paris in 1800. He commenced his naval career in 1825, and in February the following year he joined Dumont d’Urville’s expedition to the South Seas as the official voyage artist on board the corvette Astrolabe, on a monthly salary of 100 francs. He had been recommended to Dumont d’Urville for the position by Quoy, one of the expedition naturalists. During the three- year circumnavigation of the Astrolabe de Sainson was prodigious in his output, producing almost 500 drawings in total. From these works, selections were made for the Atlas volumes which were published in 1833 as part of the official expedition account, Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe exécuté pendant les années 1826, 1827, 1828, 1829, sous le commandement de M. J. Dumont D’Urville. Dumont d’Urville noted that ‘[de Sainson’s] portfolio contains no fewer than 182 views, landscapes, scenes and pictures; 153 portraits, 112 plates of dwellings, monuments, costumes, arms and utensils, and 45 coastal profiles, sketches of trees, etc.’.

Although one of the aims of the expedition was to find the remains of La Pérouse (or, at least, firm evidence of the fate of the navigator and his crew, last sighted leaving Botany Bay in March 1788), its broader objectives were the carrying out of scientific research and exploration in the Pacific, including the charting of the coasts of New Zealand and New Guinea. The Astrolabe visited the western, southern and eastern coasts of New Holland, the upper South Island and east coast of New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, and the chain of islands to its east (later known as the Bismarck Archipelago).

Early in July 1827 the Astrolabe sailed northwest from the island of Bougainville, the northernmost of the Solomons, and on 17 July anchored in Carteret Harbour, on the western side of New Ireland near its southern tip. Carteret Harbour (now called Lamassa Bay) is in the St. George’s Channel which separates New Ireland and New Britain. It was in this safe haven that the expedition was able to procure urgently needed supplies of wood and water. Although the Astrolabe’s crew saw evidence of a recent visit to the area by the local inhabitants, including a human skeleton still in a state of decomposition, they encountered no-one. During the week-long sojourn the incessant rainfall was the most torrential any of the expedition members had witnessed. On 24 July the Astrolabe weighed anchor and continued on a northwestly course through the St. George’s Channel, making for the Admiralty Islands. On board ship in the early hours of that morning Dumont d’Urville reflected: ‘All around me everything was deeply asleep …I silently reviewed in my mind the many tribulations our corvette has been through. How many times had these bodies stretched out all around me escaped being drowned at sea! … What could be more precarious than the lives of these men submissive to the will of one of their fellows and obliged to let themselves be dragged anywhere he liked to take them, through gales and dangerous waters and among even more dangerous reefs!’

Over 200 of de Sainson’s original pencil drawings made during the voyage of the Astrolabe are held in the Archives de France in two portfolios (MAR/5JJ/102/A ; MAR/5JJ/102/B) under the general title Vues des côtes et dessins à la mine de plomb [par Louis-Auguste de Sainson, dessinateur sur l’Astrolabe]. A much smaller group of his voyage sketches forms part of the album in the SLNSW that chiefly contains drawings made by Arago during the Freycinet expedition around a decade earlier.

The BnF holds 25 of de Sainson’s finished watercolours, worked up from his shipboard drawings after his return to France and used as the basis for engravings in the Atlas volumes of the official voyage account. These are catalogued by the BnF under the title Dessins originaux de De Sainson pour Voyage de découvertes autour du monde et à la recherche de La Pérouse, par Dumont D’Urville sur la corvette l’Astrolabe (1826 à 1829). The BnF watercolours once formed part of the library of Prince Roland Bonaparte. Images of them (including the versos, which have manuscript captions in the same hand as the present work) can be viewed:

An engraved version of the present work was made by Sigismond Himely, as one of the illustrations (plate 109, Forêt au Hâvre Carteret) in the second volume of the voyage account’s Atlas. It should be noted that Himely’s engraved image differs from de Sainson’s original watercolour in several respects, most notably in the depictions of the figures at far left and right, but also in the arrangement of branches and foliage in a number of places. As in other de Sainson works from the Astrolabe voyage, for example Vue interieure du pa de Kahouwera. (Nouvelle Zélande), the sketching artist in the foreground at lower left is a self-portrait.

The similarities between the present work and the watercolours conserved in the BnF in terms of style, technique and palette are abundantly clear; more crucial, however, is the fact that forensic analysis carried out in situ at the BnF has been able to show conclusively that the present work was executed on the same paper stock as the BnF examples, and that the handwriting of the inscription on the verso also corresponds perfectly with that in the BnF captions. Furthermore, the handwriting is identical to that on the back of a de Sainson drawing in the Musée du Quai Branly.

A rare and exquisite work by one of the key voyage artists to record early European exploration in the Pacific.

The artist with companions from the Astrolabe in the rainforest at Carteret Harbour, New Ireland (1827).

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