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Portrait of Nicolas Baudin

Warts and all

Recently acquired by the Library is this highly detailed pencil and charcoal drawing of French Commander Nicolas Baudin, c 1802, by Nicolas-Martin Petit. The portrait had been held privately by one family for several decades, the identity of the sitter unknown. In the 1960s, the owner wrote to the State Library asking if staff could identify who the sitter might be. A staff member recognised the subject quickly, remembering a sketch which had been in the Library’s collection since 1933. The almost identical sketch is titled ‘Commander Baudin 1802’ and has been attributed to Phillip Parker King. All the physical features matched — the flourish of Baudin’s hair at the front of his head, his finger resting on the top of the compass, his eye downcast and a wart or mole on the end of his nose are all clearly legible in both portraits.

Some 50 years after the initial inquiry, the Library has purchased the original portrait of Commander Nicolas Baudin.

Commodore Baudin, ca. 1810, from Phillip Parker King - album of drawings and engravings, 1802-1902
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Portrait of Commandant en Chef Nicolas Baudin, ca. 1802 by N. Petit
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Nicolas Thomas Baudin (1754–1803) was a cartographic surveyor and naturalist who led a French expedition to the southern parts of the Eastern Hemisphere between 1800–04. The aim of the expedition was to complete a French cartographic survey of the coast of Australia and conduct other scientific investigations. Two corvettes, the Géographe and the Naturaliste, were equipped in the port of Le Havre with the most experienced officers in the French Navy and the expedition departed France on 19 October 1800, under the command of Nicolas Baudin. The Institut de France selected some 23 scientists to take part in the expedition. Among these was François Péron, a young medical botanist and anthropologist; and cartographer Louis de Freycinet, both of whom would later write the official account of the expedition.

At the same time as the Baudin expedition was exploring and charting the Australian coastline, the rival British expedition, led by Matthew Flinders, was also sailing along the unknown southern coastline of the Australian continent. The famous encounter between these rival expeditions occurred on 8 April 1802 at what became known as Encounter Bay off South Australia.

The artist, Nicolas-Martin Petit, avoided conscription into Napoleon’s armies, but, desiring adventure and travel, signed up with the Baudin expedition to the Antipodes. Petit is especially known for his sensitive drawings and paintings of the Indigenous people of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), the Sydney region and Western Australia. While the expedition wintered in Sydney for five months in 1802, Petit completed several portraits of Aboriginal people. Perhaps this was the same time that Petit worked up a portrait of his captain in a contemplative mood.

In Petit’s portrait of Baudin, we have no doubt about his rank and purpose — he is dressed in his naval uniform, seated before his chart, compass in hand. This natural, true-to-life portrait conveys a sense of Baudin the man — he is placed in a contemplative pose, depicted as sensitive and intelligent — the enlightened navigator. The overall effect is enhanced by the fine pencil work; the details of his face and hair, even the prominent mole or wart on the end of his nose, and the decorative braiding on his collar and epaulettes are rendered with a delicate touch. It is a seemingly candid depiction of Baudin at work, conveying his focus, concentration and dedication.
We do not know why Petit produced this portrait, or even if Baudin realised Petit was sketching him. Perhaps Petit simply drew it as a study — an exercise in portraiture.

The Baudin expedition charted the Western Australian coast before heading towards Van Diemen’s Land where surveying work was undertaken in D’Entrecasteaux Channel, towards Bass Strait, and then along the coastline between Wilsons Promontory and Nuyts Archipelago. The expedition were forced to spend a lengthy layover in Sydney between 20 June and 18 November 1802 due to sickness amongst the crew. Baudin then took his fittest crew members back to Van Diemen’s Land, across to Kangaroo Island, then up the western coast, surveying as he went. The sadly depleted expedition reached Mauritius in August 1803, with Baudin dying from tuberculosis on the island in 1803 at the age of 48. Petit returned to France in 1804. However, before he was well enough to complete the drawings from the expedition, he was injured in a street accident and died at the age of 28. Petit’s unfinished work was first published in 1807 in the Atlas of the Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes and as discrete prints.

The sketch of Baudin which the Library already held, attributed to Phillip Parker King (1791–1856), is a scaled down copy of Petit’s work. It has less detail than the original but is otherwise identical to Petit’s portrait. The paper is watermarked ‘Whatman 1810’, so Parker King may have made this copy before, or after he returned to Sydney in September 1817, aged 26. This work has been in the Library’s collection since November 1933, acquired from the King Estate.


Elise Edmonds

Senior Curator, Research & Discovery