Femme Sauvage de l'île Van Diemen (Détroit de D'Entrecasteaux). Nicolas-Martin PETIT, French.

Femme Sauvage de l'île Van Diemen (Détroit de D'Entrecasteaux).

Dentrecasteaux Strait Tasmania: probably late January or early February 1802.

Ink, watercolour and gouache on lightly tinted blue paper, 205 x 200 mm (image, within a ruled border) on a sheet measuring 235 x 212 mm; signed lower left: "N.m. Petit", inscribed with title below image and with further inscription in image upper right: "Terre de Diémen"

A magnificent Australian portrait by the great artist of the Baudin voyage

This striking and important Australian painting is one of the earliest known works depicting any Aboriginal woman made by a Western artist.

This striking and important Australian painting is one of the earliest known works depicting any Aboriginal woman made by a Western artist.

Confidently signed by Petit, the superb work depicts a seated Tasmanian woman in three-quarter profile, her legs crossed in the way noted by many of the French diarists, her hair cropped short and with a kangaroo skin cloak loosely draped over her right shoulder, her left breast exposed. The woman has been depicted without any scarification or ornamentation of any kind and looks directly towards the viewer with an air of self-assurance. Unusually for Petit, the scene includes an evocative background display of local foliage, dominated by subtle brown and blue-green tones which show how adept the artist was at capturing the vagaries of Australian light.

There is no question that Petit's sensitive portraits of Australian Aboriginal men and women made on the Baudin voyage are his greatest achievement, having an "immediacy and directness unlike any previous images of them" (Martin Terry in the Dictionary of Australian Artists).

Petit and the Baudin voyage

Nicolas-Martin Petit (1777-1804), born into a family of fan-makers, had precocious talent which led to him training with the great neo-classicist painter Louis David, and his obvious ability meant that he quickly established himself as a well-respected member of the Baudin expedition. The two ships first arrived in the waters of south-east Tasmania in January 1802, Baudin and his officers being perfectly aware that the close investigation of the region, following on from the substantive visits of their countrymen Marion du Fresne in 1772 and d'Entrecasteaux in 1792/1793, had tremendous geopolitical significance, as this was the one Australian region that had been particularly studied by French voyagers (not forgetting the visits of explorers such as Tasman, Furneaux, Cook and Bligh, to name some of the more important). It was also the first place that Baudin and his men were able to have any extended interviews with any Australians, given that the Frenchmen had been almost completely avoided during their earlier forays ashore on the western coast of the continent in the second half of 1801.

This period was, that is, Petit's first immersion in his study of the Aboriginal people, one of the central tasks of the Baudin expedition, and the work for which is he is chiefly remembered.

Little is known about Petit's time on the voyage, although François Péron does mention him several times in the official account, describing how quickly and with what facility he was able to sketch, and noting that Petit had a charming habit of calming the nerves of his sitters with tricks and simple sleight of hand. Sadly, Petit died as the result of a seemingly insignificant accident soon after his return to Paris (the rigours of the voyage were held to be partly to blame for his rapid decline), which also had the sad consequence that many of his papers and notebooks were dispersed and lost. The loss to the study of early Aboriginal history is incalculable.

Petit's Tasmanian subject

Although the woman is not named (most of the Tasmanians were not in fact named by Petit, an oversight he appears to have regretted, given how careful he was to record most of his sitters in Sydney), this is one of the Petit portraits with an unusually precise caption in his hand, noting that it shows a woman of the "île Van Diemen" at the D'Entrecasteaux Strait, which is likely to mean that the precise locality of the scene was near the observatory the French established at North West Bay between 19 January and 5 February 1802, marking this out as a rare scene taken on the mainland itself. The French at the observatory, and particularly the officers in charge, Bernier and St. Cricq, made frequent comment on their friendly interactions with a large familial group, who were clearly intrigued by their visitors (see, for example, Bernier's letter to his commander, Journal of Post Captain Baudin, 4 February 1802).

Aboriginal portraiture

In terms of Aboriginal portraiture, the work of Petit is not only important because of the recognised fidelity and warmth of his paintings, but is also of historical consequence as he was one of only a select handful of early artists to make any such study.

Indeed, it is a remarkable exercise to consider just how few original portraits of Aboriginal men and women in the earliest phase of the colonial era actually exist. The earliest known are some very simple sketches in ink done on the east coast during Cook's Endeavour voyage in 1770 by Sydney Parkinson (British Museum), followed by four more fully-realised portraits made on Cook's third voyage at Bruny Island in January 1777, by the Swiss artist John Webber, including one very well-known portrait of a woman with close-cropped hair holding her child (see Joppien & Smith 3.10 – 3.13). Webber's portrait of the woman and child was one of two Tasmanian portraits later engraved for the official account (1784).

Even after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, most of the known works, and certainly the most artistically significant, were done by two main artists: the mysterious Port Jackson Painter, who contributed a striking group of studies and half-length portraits (Natural History Museum, London) and Thomas Watling, the convict artist better known for natural history and topographical works, but who made a number of thoughtful portraits of Aboriginal life (Natural History Museum, London). It is a startling thought that the visual history of early European contact with Aboriginal people is in fact dominated by published engravings, with all of the problems in distortion and transmission that implies.

In fact, it is Petit and his exact contemporary on the Australian coast, William Westall of the Investigator, who represented the next major advance on this work, Westall's important but less substantial contribution being in the form of a number of pencil portraits, most notably the work now captioned 'Port Jackson, A native' (NLA).

The Tasmanian hiatus

As this short list implies, any early portrait from the life of an Australian Aboriginal is very rare, especially in private hands, and it also confirms that no early artist surpasses Petit as regards the sensitivity of his work. It also shows, by the same token, that for Tasmania, known works are particularly scarce, because apart from Webber's portraits the only other early works are a handful of sketches by the artist who sailed with d'Entrecasteaux, Jean Piron, held in the Musée de l'Homme (Paris), and later used by engravers as the basis of some plates in the voyage account published by Labillardière (1798).

Petit's paintings are rendered even more significant by the fact that after he and Westall returned to Europe, there was another hiatus in any such work being made or commissioned: this hiatus is notable enough on the mainland and almost complete in Tasmania, where nothing of substance was added by any artist until Thomas Bock arrived in 1824 (and even then, his important Aboriginal portraits date more from the 1830s). As Plomley has since written, the early European descriptions of the peoples of Tasmania peaked before settlement ('French Manuscripts', p. 1).


Petit's works have always been known to be very rare on the market, with the main repository being the major collection in Le Havre (acquired before 1880). Recent years have seen an important number of Petit's works for sale (those associated with the Milius journal; the pencil portrait of the boy 'Toulgra' at Christie's in late 2017; and the group from the de la Roche St. André/Suyrot de Mazeau families at Deutscher & Hackett in 2018).

Le Havre is known to have preliminary pencil and charcoal versions of this portrait, both also by Petit (see Bonnemains, Baudin in Australian Waters, nos. B:20013.1 & 20013.2). No full portrait of this woman was ever published, but a heavily simplified and rather generic version was added to the composite group scene published as plate XV in the first edition of Baudin's voyage, having been worked-up for publication by his fellow artist from the voyage, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur.

Provenance: Voyage portfolio of Nicolas-Martin Petit; studio of the Baudin voyage artists in Paris; thought to be part of the presentation of original artworks from Charles-Alexandre Lesueur to Louis de Freycinet circa 1815; presumed to have remained with the Freycinet family until mid-nineteenth century when recorded as having been presented to the de la Roche St. André family, likely to Pauline de la Roche St. André (1797-1882); thence by descent through the Suyrot de Mazeau family until recently.

Jacqueline Bonnemains et al., Baudin in Australian Waters (1988); Dictionary of Australian Artists (online); Christine Cornell (ed.), The Journal of Post Captain Baudin (1974); Frank Horner, Looking for La Pérouse (1995); Rüdiger Joppien & Bernard Smith, The Art of Captain Cook's Voyages (1985); François Péron & Louis de Freycinet, Voyage de Découvertes aux Terres Australes (1807-1816); N.J.B. Plomley, 'French Manuscripts referring to the Tasmanian Aborigines' (1966); N.J.B. Plomley, The Baudin Expedition and the Tasmanian Aborigines (1983).

Condition Report: Fine

Price (AUD): $675,000.00

US$518,970.50   Other currencies

Ref: #4504944

Condition Report