Advertiser, 9 February 2002 - page 40-41.
WILLIAMS, NADINE Replacing guns with brushes to create a lasting treasure.

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They joined the great French voyage to ``Terre Australie'' as assistant gunners but fate decreed they became official artists to portray a unique people - Aboriginal Australians.

Two hundred years ago, talented illustrators, Charles-Alexandra Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit sketched a priceless anthropological study of Aboriginal people to portray their appearance and primitive lifestyle. The young artists took the place of the three official artists who defected from Nicolas Baudin's voyage on Le Geographe at French-controlled Mauritius.

Their exquisite works arrived from the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Le Havre, France, this week for the Encounter, 1802 - Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. The exhibition will be opened by the French Ambassador to Australia, Pierre Viaux, and the British High Commissioner, Sir Alastair Goodlad, at the gallery on Thursday night.

It is the first time the works have been seen outside France and they will provide Australians with an enlightening view of Aboriginal culture before colonisation.

``When Lesueur and Petit came to Australia, one of their missions was to capture the physiognomy and lifestyle of the Aboriginal people,'' gallery curator of Australian art Sarah Thomas said.

``Their paintings are very sensitive, artistical portrayals of

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Aboriginal people and very individualistic.''

Works of all four artists will be on display together for the first time and will include 30 watercolours by Ferdinand Bauer and 20 landscapes by William Westall, the artists on board Matthew Flinders' Investigator.

``Bauer is considered to be the greatest natural history artist of all time and Westall is Australia's first professional landscape artist,'' Ms Thomas said.

``Lesueur created supremely beautiful images of our exotic marine life and Petit's portraits of Australia's indigenous people are some of the most sensitive ever created.

``They are incredibly beautiful, because some of the French works have been painted on vellum, which is animal skin,'' she said. ``The works have a very jewel-like quality and the brilliant colours have been maintained over 200 years.''

She took four years to gather the works from natural history museums, defence collections and private collections in London, France, Vienna and Australia.

But while all the artists sketched and painted SA's unique terrain, plants and exotic animals for the first time, it was the French artists who painted unique renditions of Aborigines from Arnhem Land to Tasmania. Petit's sensitive works depict Aborigines in family groups, individual portraits of children, naked women and men around campfires and canoe fishing, to depict an indigenous culture which has since been destroyed by colonisation.

Ms Thomas said the French `encounters' with Aboriginal people were complex and the French engaged in friendly exchanges.

``Petit went to a lot of trouble to barter with the Aborigines, not only as a racial type but as individual human beings with different characteristics,'' she said.

A year before Baudin's expedition, the Societe des Observateurs de l'Homme, the first anthropological society in the world, was established in Paris and he joined it.

``The French were on a mission to find out as much as they could about the Aboriginal people here but it is fair to say that the British were more interested in painting plants and animals than Aboriginal people,'' Ms Thomas said.