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Nicolas-Martin Petit

1777 – 1804

Nicholas-Martin Petit was born in Paris, the son of a fan maker, and learned graphic art in the studio of Jacques Louis David. He avoided conscription into Napoleon's armies, but wanting to travel, signed up with post Captain Nicholas Baudin on a voyage to the antipodes sponsored by the French government. Petit and fellow artist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur were enlisted directly by Baudin (as 4th class gunner's mates) while the two official artists were hired by the organisers of the expedition. Baudin set off in two lavishly equipped vessels, the Géographe and the Naturaliste on 19 October 1800. By the time the expedition reached Mauritius the official artists had quit. Petit and Lesueur took over their duties, but as neither was trained in scientific method or presentation, the value of their work was primarily aesthetic. The French were at this time developing a new scientific field - anthropology. The Society of the Observers of Man was founded in 1799 for this purpose. The study of Man formed part of the background for Petit's sensitive drawings and paintings of the indigenous people of Van Diemen's Land, Port Jackson and Western Australia. Lesueur focused on the depiction of animals. The expedition charted the coast of Western Australia and Van Diemen's land but was plagued by scurvy. On 20 June 1802 the two ships limped into Port Jackson and stayed for five months to refit, during which time Petit completed a number of portraits of Sydney Indigenous people, including the two images of the Eora men, 'Cour-rou-bari-gal' and 'Y-erren-gou-la-ga'. Petit eventually returned to France in 1804. However, before he was well enough to complete the drawings from the expedition he was hurt in a street accident, and he 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.

Updated 2018