The Old Print Shop

Louis Le Breton


Louis Le Breton (1818 – 1866) French painter, draughtsman and lithographer. Le Breton was born in Douarnenez, Brittany. He continued a family tradition by studying medicine although he combined this with a commitment to the sea by taking his initial training at the Naval Medical School, Brest (1836-37). Almost immediately after leaving Brest he joined the Astrolabe as 'Surgeon, 3rd Class’, but early in the voyage his considerable abilities as an artist came to the appreciative attention of the commander of the expedition, Dumont d’Urville, and brought him additional responsibilities, especially after the death of Goupil , the expedition’s official artist, at Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land, on the second of the Astrolabe’s four visits to Australia or Australian waters (Raffles Bay and Port Essington on the northern coast, March-April 1839; Hobart Town, December 1839-January 1840 and February 1840; Torres Strait, May-June 1840). In 1844-45 Le Breton was in the Indian Ocean as surgeon on board the Berceau, where his drawings earned further praise, but this voyage was interrupted by ill-health, a hasty return to France (1846) and a period of convalescence. Le Breton resigned from his medical functions in 1848 and transferred to the Department of Maps and Charts in Paris where he remained until his death on 30 August 1866. Barthelemy Lauvergne was one of his colleagues. While on board the Astrolabe , Le Breton worked both in pencil and watercolor. An album of pencil drawings (Municipal Library, Saint Brieuc, Brittany) contains a number of works from the Pacific, although only two have been tentatively identified as being of Australian interest: a pair of studies of cannon appear to be the source of a detail in a view of Port Essington lithographed for the atlas of plates illustrating the voyage, while a sketch of a ship aground may represent the Astrolabe in Torres Strait. A collection of 174 watercolors recording the entire voyage—now (with two exceptions) known only from Le Breton’s own manuscript catalogue—contained two views each from Raffles Bay and Port Essington, eleven from Hobart Town, and nine from Torres Strait. One of the Tasmanian scenes, a competent watercolor of a coach crossing Bridgewater, survives in the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston; the other is of a New Zealand subject. Twenty-five unspecified watercolors from this collection were shown at the Paris Salon in 1841 but no critic appears to have commented on them. It is also known that Le Breton made a number of natural history drawings during the voyage but no originals have been located. Like Lauvergne before him and Charles Meryon after him, Le Breton sought to initiate a professional career as an artist by submitting works to the Salon, first in 1841 and again in 1843 and 1849. Among the pictures recorded in the catalogues only one is of an Australian subject, an oil painting showing the two ships on the reef in Torres Strait (Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts). This foray into the official art world was apparently unsuccessful and there is no evidence that Le Breton made any further moves in this direction. Meanwhile he had been actively associated with the preparation of the illustrations to the official account of the voyage; twenty lithographs and three engravings of Australian material (landscapes, a portrait, ethnographic subjects and natural history specimens) were included after Le Breton’s drawings. From about 1849 to about 1865 Le Breton himself drew directly on to the lithographic stone. Among the more than 350 such sheets in the combined collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris) and the Mitchell Library only one, depicting the English corvette Fly in Sydney Harbour in 1853 (Bibliotheque Nationale). He was a prolific illustrator, contributing to books on travel and geography and to the illustrated magazines which flourished in France from the mid 1830’s. Le Breton’s skills as an artist are seen at their best in his surviving pencil drawings. In those cases where it is possible to compare them with later more carefully and conventionally composed lithographed versions their greater freedom and spontaneity are immediately apparent. His work, both as an illustrator-journalist and as a lithographer, reveals his considerable technical knowledge, recognized in one of the obituaries published in 1866: 'The Illustration has just lost one of its most assiduous draughtsman … Le Breton was one of the few artists who specialized in nautical subjects, which he knew thoroughly, and in this field he rendered solid service to those publications with which he was associated’.