Entrée de la rivière de Païou (île Vanikoro). LA PEROUSE, Ernest GOUPIL, Louis LE BRETON, DUMONT D'URVILLE.

Entrée de la rivière de Païou (île Vanikoro).
Entrée de la rivière de Païou (île Vanikoro).

Vanikoro (Santa Cruz Islands) and ?Paris: c.1838 and possibly worked on later.

Pencil drawing, 245 x 407 mm; inscribed at the lower left "E. Goupil" and dated 1838; titled as above on mount.

La Pérouse's final encampment on Vanikoro

This fine original drawing from the Dumont d'Urville expedition of 1837-1840 shows the mouth of the Paiu river (today known as the Lawrence River) at Vanikoro, one of the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons, where the French established that the La Pérouse expeditioners ended their days. This is the original drawing for plate 97 in Dumont d'Urville's Atlas pittoresque du Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zélée (Paris, 1846).

This fine original drawing from the Dumont d'Urville expedition of 1837-1840 shows the mouth of the Paiu river (today known as the Lawrence River) at Vanikoro, one of the Santa Cruz Islands in the Solomons, where the French established that the La Pérouse expeditioners ended their days. This is the original drawing for plate 97 in Dumont d'Urville's Atlas pittoresque du Voyage au Pôle Sud et dans l'Océanie sur les corvettes l'Astrolabe et la Zélée (Paris, 1846).

Dumont d'Urville's second expedition revisited Vanikoro, calling there on 6 November 1838, fifty years after the disappearance of the La Pérouse expedition and ten years after their earlier visit immediately following up on the reports of objects discovered there by Dillon. D'Urville himself had not been able to visit the wreck site on the earlier visit when he was recovering from malarial fever; Duyker speculates that it may have been exactly this reason that caused him to return. The sentiment felt by the tough commander shows through even in the official account.

We know from that account that they scanned the seabed again but could find no traces of the wreck on account of the choppy waters. They examined an area that seemed to have been cleared of trees which he speculated might have been the French encampment. However it was now covered in thick vegetative regrowth which presented too great an obstacle to consider clearing. Their search for relics over a wide area uncovered nothing more than a piece of polished wood, that they suspected could have come from a ship, and the marks of an axe on a standing coconut tree. Vincendon-Dumoulin and Dumoutier were sent to explore further afield and alarmed their commander by failing to turn up at the agreed rendezvous but eventually made their way back to the estuary before nightfall. They had found nothing of moment. The French noticed that oysters from the bay tasted of copper and deduced from this that the wrecked ships were leaching their metal into the waters inside the reef.

Ernest Goupil was the official artist on the expedition. After the Vanikoro visit, and after the expedition's visits to Patagonia, the Antarctic, the South Pacific, the East Indies and northern Australia, he died in Hobart at the start of 1840. While this fine drawing, which carries considerable emotional impact for what it represents, has the signature of Goupil, dated 1838, like other drawings from the second Dumont d'Urville voyage it was almost certainly worked on and completed by Louis Le Breton after Goupil's death in preparation for publication of the voyage.

Differences between the original drawing and the worked-up publication are clear: particularly noteworthy is the different treatment of the French sailors ashore. In the drawing there is a small camp of some kind at left, two men on the shore, four men in one longboat and two in another, and two men, perhaps a third, wading in the water presumably searching for objects.

Helen Rosenman wrote ("Design and Art Australia Online") that 'During 1838-39 Goupil's cheerful and generous nature won him the affection of all members of the expedition. He filled many canvases with finely detailed and faithfully observed scenes of places as diverse as the bleak terrain of Patagonia, Antarctic storms, the tropical lushness of Tahiti and the East Indies, as well as the strange landscape of northern Australia. Then, along with many members of the two ships' companies, Goupil was stricken with dysentery, contracted from infected waters taken on in Sumatra. After a long battle with this illness during the difficult two-month trip from Sumatra to Hobart Town, he died in Hobart Town on 1 January 1840, just as the corvettes were leaving for their second attempt to reach the high Antarctic latitudes and the subsequent discovery and claiming of Adelie Land for France.

'He was mourned by all. His obituarist wrote: 'A few hours before his death, as the whim of a dying man, he asked for some champagne. We could not refuse his request and he was holding the glass in his feeble hand, when Commander Jacquinot who had a special affection for Ernest came to see him. "You see, Commander", he said, trying to smile, "death is not so sad as people imagine". At this saintly acceptance, that tough sailor, who had seen death in many forms without flinching, whose crew had been decimated by disease, turned away to hide his tears'. The young surgeon Louis Le Breton became the artist for the remainder of the expedition.'

The extensive studies since, combining examination of oral traditions among the islanders with marine and land archaeological excavations, suggest that not all the French may have died here at Paiu Bay; it seems possible that a phoenix boat may have been constructed from the wreckage and some survivors sailed away from the bay, but if so their ultimate fate is not known. Recent examinations suggest that some sort of boatbuilding activity, whether successful or not, did indeed take place at the site depicted here.

See https://www.alamy.com and search "goupil Vanikoro" for an image of the published plate which was put together by the lithographer Sabatier after this Goupil/Le Breton original.

Provenance: French private collection.

Edward Duyker, Dumont d'Urville: Explorer & Polymath, gives a good description of both Vanikoro visits, this second visit at pp. 391-2.

Price (AUD): $40,000.00  other currencies     Ref: #4504840

Condition Report