Charles Alexandre Lesueur (1778-1846)
naturalist, artist

The son of a French naval officer, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, at the age of twenty-three, sailed from his home at Le Havre, France, on an expedition to Australia and Tasmania. On this four-year venture, Lesueur and the naturalist François Péron collected some 100,000 zoological specimens representing 2,500 new species, and Lesueur made 1,500 drawings.

With a reputation thereby established, Lesueur met William Maclure in 1815, traveled with him, and was persuaded to join him in Philadelphia. There he resided until the end of 1825. Lesueur traveled on Maclure's "Boatload of Knowledge" to Mt. Vernon, Indiana, and then a few miles on to New Harmony. There, except for occasional travels, notably by rivers linking New Harmony and New Orleans, he remained until 1837, when he returned to France. In 1845, Lesueur was appointed curator of the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle du Havre, which was created to house his many drawings and paintings.

Pictured here is the oil portrait by Charles Willson Peale of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, 1818. By permission of Ewell Sale Stewart Library, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

An interesting portrayal of Lesueur is

David Starr Jordan, "Sketch of Charles A. Le Sueur," Popular Science Monthly, 49 (1895) 549-550.

Jordan, one of the foremost ichthyologists of the nineteenth century was President of Stanford University when he wrote this sketch. Included is a letter by Richard Owen, who recalls his acquaintance with Lesueur. (Biographical sketches of both Jordan and Owen are accessible at the end of this page.)

Some years ago I began to collect material for biographical sketches of several of the early naturalists in America. Among these was CHARLES A. LE SUEUR, the artist, traveler, and naturalist, who was "the first to study the ichthyology of the Great American Lakes." Le Sueur traveled widely in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England from 1817 to 1828. He was an artist of high degree, a careful and faithful observer, and according to accounts, a man of most genial and attractive character. He had won a high reputation in Europe as an artist. As a naturalist he had been around the world with Péron ... He was one of the founders of the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia. When the famous socialistic colony was established by Robert Owen at New Harmony, Ind., Le Sueur was one of its members. He came down from Pittsburg in the famous "boat-load of knowledge" with which the colony was intellectually equipped.

During his stay at New Harmony, Le Sueur made considerable collections and many drawings, some of which are still preserved, and others have been published in the Journals of the Academy at Phildelphia. A most spirited portrait of the old Governor Vigo is still extant. I have received an account of the drop-curtain painted by Le Sueur for the old theater in New Harmony. On this curtain were represented a rattlesnake and the Falls of Niagara, as two natural features most characteristically American.

After the failure of the New Harmony colony, Le Sueur returned to Phildalphia, and probably went from there to Paris, where, according to Swainson, he earned a precarious livelihood as a teacher of painting. For the latter part of his life he was curator of the museum at Havre [actually, only during 1845-1846]. His scientific work was done chiefly in America, and it ranked with the best of its kind at the time. Le Sueur's most important memoir was a monograph of the suckers, a group of American fishes constituting his genus Catostomus, each species being represented by a clever and accurate figure - drawing and engraving being both by the hand of Le Sueur. In 1878 I had occasion to speak of this paper as "an excellent one, comparing favorably with most that has since been written on the group." Other valuable papers were on certain blennies, rays, and flying fishes, accounts of new species from the West Indies, and descriptions of tortoises and other reptiles. [Reproductions of Lesueur's drawings of species of Catostomus and of a map turtle are accessible below.]

The Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers contains the titles of nine papers of which Le Sueur was joint author with François Péron. These appeared in 1809 and 1810 in French scientific serials with jelly-fishes and some other marine animals. Le Sueur was joint author with Anselme G. Desmarest of two papers on certain mollusks and sea-mosses in 1814 and 1815. The papers of which he was sole author number forty-three. They begin in 1813 with a memoir on several new species of mollusks and radiates, published in the Journal de Physique. The first six were written before he came to America, and he picked up material for the seventh on his way over. It deals with three new slug-like mollusks, and is entitled Characters of a New Genus (Firoloida) and Descriptions of Three New Species upon which it is Formed; Discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, in the Months of March and April, 1816, lat. 22░ 9'. It appeared in Volume I of the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, in 1817. Dr. Ruschenberger relates, in his Notice of the Academy, that in the first year of the Journal, "Mr. Ord, anxious to forward the publication, translated or rather prepared the papers of M. Le Sueur from materials furnished by him, as that gentleman, who immigrated from France in 1816, possessed very little knowledge of the English language." The last three of the list appeared in Paris in 1827, 1831, and 1839, respectively. Two are on certain tortoises, the other is an observation on a bite of a viper. Three other papers, written while he was in this country, were published in Paris; the rest appeared in the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy, except one in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. He evidently restricted himself quite closely to the fishes and other aquatic animals, though with an occasional excursion among the reptiles.

His descriptions are clear, exact, and honest. His drawings are not accurate only, but spirited. They are works of art rather than mechanical representations. With less range of learning than Rafinesque and some other contemporaries, Le Sueur had, what Rafinesque had not, sound sense and faithfulness in the study of details. In America he was perhaps the first of that school of systematic zoology which regards no fact as so unimportant that it need not be correctly ascertained and stated - a method of work with which has been rightly associated the name of Prof. Spencer F. Baird. This attention to accuracy in detail marks the so-called "Bairdian epoch" in vertebrate zo÷logy.

The pressure of other duties has led me to abandon the gathering of materials for the study of the lives of earlier American naturalists. I therefore leave this sketch unfinished,* [footnote: *In the hope that this sketch may some time be completed, I ask any one having additional information regarding Le Sueur's history or his personality to send it either to the editor of The Popular Science Monthly or to the writer.] using it only as a reason for printing the most valuable of original documents concerning Le Sueur. This is a personal letter from the late Prof. Richard Owen, whose early life was spent at New Harmony, and who was my predecessor in the chair of Biology in the University of Indiana.

Before continuing Jordan's account by quoting Richard Owen's letter, it should be noted that Owen was the youngest of Robert Owen's children and the only one still alive in 1886. Prof. Owen writes (in Jordan's account) as follows, under the date of December 14, 1886:
Charles A. Le Sueur was, when I knew him in 1828, about fifty to fifty-five years of age, tall, rather spare in muscle, but hardy and enduring. He permitted his beard to grow, which at that time was quite unusual; hence he sometimes platted it and tucked it almost out of sight when he went from home. In New Harmony he usually went barenecked, often bareheaded, and in summer occasionally barefooted, or at least without socks. His hair had been dark, but was sprinkled (as well as his beard) with gray. His manner and movements were quick; his fondness for natural history (as it was then called) led him to hunt and fish a good deal.

In summer he was fond of swimming in the Wabash, and I frequently accompanied him. He instructed me how to feel with my feet for Unios and other shells as we waded sometimes up to our necks in the river or ponds, searching to add to our collections. When he went fishing with others he always exchanged his fine common fishes for the smallest and to them most indifferent-looking, when he recognized some new species or even variety. This item I have from Mr. Sampson, who is well acquainted with the fish of the Wabash, but who confesses he could see no difference in many caught until Mr. Le Sueur, who at once detected that difference, had pointed it out.

He was temperate and active in all his habits, smoking being the only objectionable habit in which he indulged. His temper was quick and used to call out an occasional "God bless my soul!" the only approach to anything like irritation that he evinced; he was very kind-hearted.

In conversation with Agassiz about Mr. Le Sueur, the great Swiss ichthyologist paid a high complement to Le Sueur's acquirements in that department, considering him then (as I inferred) the next best to himself at that time in the United States. He was, however, I judge, remarkably conversant with other branches of biology, inasmuch as nearly all the magnificent drawings he had made when left in New Holland (as it was then called) were mammals, chiefly the ornithorhynchus, echidna, and other rare animals. In showing his drawings he generally offered a lens, that you might see every hair distinctly delineated.

He was a magnificent artist, good alike in drawing and coloring. I have some of his sketches yet, in which, when I was taking drawing lessons from him, he showed me how to outline, for instance, the skeleton of the human figure, then to add the muscular system, then the clothing, drapery, etc. We usually took views from Nature. Although so minute in details of fine painting, he was equally good in large scenery. For many years we had here the scenes he painted for a Thespian Society of this place, where, amid the forest trees, he had squirrels, birds, etc. Being fond of hunting, he had made to order by a native gunsmith, who was quite a genius, a double-barrel piece, one a rifle, the other a smooth-bore. Gillson, the gunsmith, made the barrels, bored the rifle, made the stock, and an admirable lock; the stock was inlaid with silver and engraved by the same skillful hand, bearing Le Sueur's name and an appropriate device. I do not remember exactly the price, but think it was about a hundred dollars.

In consequence of his having been with La Pérouse [here Owen should have referred to Nicolas Baudin, not Pérouse]..., the French Government gave him a pension, which he drew annually, until they notified him that, unless he returned and gave his time and talents to his native country (France), the pension would be withheld. He went at a time when I was absent, and those who here knew him well have forgotten the date. He became curator of the museum at Havre, and then, after some years, died and was buried there. The exact date of his death those three have also forgotten.

When he came to New Harmony during the social experiment he was directly from the West Indies, and brought a young lad and a child, both of whom subsequently married, but both are now dead. It was from their relative that I expected to get dates, but failed. [Corrections: Lesueur arrived from Philadelphia, having left the West Indies a decade earlier. Owen's memory that a young lad and a child were brought by Lesueur to New Harmony may have been amiss.]

When the 'Preliminary Society' (at New Harmony) resolved itself into the (1) Educational, (2) Agricultural, and (3) Commercial Societies, Mr. Le Sueur joined the first, and I have in my box of valuable papers a deed of a lot (for the purpose of erecting a foundry), executed by the Educational Society, and signed by my father-in-law, Mr. Neef, and his family, Drs. Troost, C. A. Le Sueur, William Phiquepal, and a number of others.

Some of the relatives of those who came with him think there was a notice in some public journal of his death, etc., but I never saw it. I just recall two incidents:

When we were together, going sketching, I think, we found and killed a large blacksnake, uncommonly distended. Mr. Le Sueur, when we reached home, used a large syringe and injected water into the stomach, from which he then stripped four young rabbits. Another time we obtained a female opossum, and he very deftly dissected it and showed me the young adhering to the small teats in the pouch or marsupium.

Lesueur was first to describe a well-known fossil genus, which he named in honor of William Maclure. The original designation, Maclurea was since changed to Maclurites. The description was given in

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, "Observations on a new genus of fossil shells," Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 1 (1818) 310-313.

Lesueur co-authored with Troost, another New Harmony scientist:

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Gerard Troost, "Calamine in Missouri: lead ores of Missouri," American Journal of Science 12 (1827) 376-378, 379-380.

Some of Lesueur's art works are preserved in the United States or described in English; see for example,

Josephine Mirabella Elliott and Jane Thompson Johansen, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur: Premier Naturalist and Artist, privately published with support from University of Southern Indiana, Endowment for New Harmony Studies, 1999.

R. W. G. Vail, The American Sketchbooks of Charles Alexandre Lesueur, 1816-1837, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, 1938.

David Starr Jordan, in the account quoted above, mentioned that Lesueur's articles published in English were overseen by George Ord, a founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and a close friend of Lesueur and an accomplished author. Among his writings is the following tribute.

George Ord, "A Memoir of Charles Alexander Lesueur," American Journal of Science 8 (1849) 189-216,

Ord's memoir gives a very clear description of Lesueur and Péron during the years of the famous expedition which established Lesueur's reputation. Parts of the memoir are quoted here as a record of the remarkable scope, hardships, and accomplishments of the expedition.

... {Napoleon] Bonaparte was elevated to the dignity of first Consul; and although the wars which had called into activity his military talents still continued, yet was it hoped that under his auspices France, long the antagonist of England in arms, might be enabled to prove herself to be a successful competitor in those pursuits which tend to the improvement and happiness of the human race.

As it was intended that this expedition should form an epoch in the history of maritime discovery, neither pains nor cost were spared to render it successful. Two sloops of war or corvettes, respectively named the Géographe and the Naturaliste, were equipped in the port of Havre; and a selection from the most skillful and experienced officers of the navy was made to conduct them. The scientific corps [consisted of] four astronomers and hydrographers, three botanists, five zoologists, two mineralogists, four artists, and five gradeners. So large and so efficient a body had never been engaged in a similar expedition.

It was not among the officers alone that there was discrimination in the choice. "The midshipmen before they were received," says the historian of the voyage, "underwent rigorous examinations; the most inferior stations had been sought for with avidity, and some of them were filled by young men of the most respectable families in Normandy... Among these interesting young men was my worthy coadjutor, my estimable friend, Mr. Lesueur, the dear companion of my dangers, my sacrifices and my toil."

...he was warned of the inconveniences and privations to which he would be liable on shipboard, where every appropriate place was already occupied. He however allowed nothing to daunt him; and he was enrolled among the crew of the Géographe under the designation of novice-timonier, which, in English marine vernacular, might be rendered green-horn or lubber.

Péron [who had with some difficulty and great persistence persuaded the commissioners that his knowledge of medicine, zoology, and comparative anatomy would be needed] and Lesueur...were both admirers of nature's works; and perceiving in each other certain qualities which, if properly united, might be productive of valuable results, they resolved to labor in concert... The talents of Lesueur, it should seem, were not known, at first, to the artists appointed to accompany the scientific corps; but when these talents were revealed in his masterly drawings of the mollusca and soft zoophytes, with one accord, they pronounced him worthy of a place in their department; and the youthful aspirant was forthwith transferred by the commander-in-chief, from the humble position he occupied among the crew, to the honorable station of painter of natural history, and his appointments and privileges were made to correspond with his rank.

... [On the Island of Timor an accident befel Lesueur] on the 12th of September [1801, which] nearly cost him his life. While pursuing a troop of monkeys, among the rocks which obstruct the course of the river Coepang, he was bitten in the heel by a venomous reptile. He was alone, at some distance from the town. A numbness, which pervaded the whole leg, was a significant indication of what he had to apprehend from such a wound. He hastened toward the fort, as fast as his condition would permit, as his leg had become rigid... The surgeon-major, M. Sharidon, fortunately being at home, immediately cauterized deeply the wound, then applied to it a compress, impregnated with ammonia; he also gave the patient a strong dose of the same, and ordered him to be kept as quiet as possible...

...The scurvy, which had succeeded to the dysentery, pervaded the ship to an alarming extent. "Already," says Péron, "several men had been consigned to the deep; already more than half of our crew were incapable of any duty; and of our helmsmen, two alone could keep the deck. The progress of this epidemic was frightful. Could it be otherwise? Three-fourths of a bottle of fetid water was our daily ration; during more than a year we had not tasted wine... Our biscuit was full of insects; all our salt provisions were rotten, to the full extent of the term; and so offensive were these meats, that the most hungry sailors, refusing to partake of them, sometimes, even in the presence of the commander, threw their rations into the sea.

...[In May, 1802, conditions] may be imagined, when it is stated that not a single person was exempt from the scurvy. Of the crew, but twelve men, out of one hundred and seventy, were in a condition to do their duty.

...On the 7th day of August, the Géographe reached the Isle of France...on the 16th day of September, 1803, Nicholas Baudin [who had been incurably sick] ended his days, and was buried with all the honors which were due to the rank which he held in the French navy.

...[Among] the officers of this expedition, there was one capital defect, and that was in the choice of the commander-in-chief. Who Nicholas Baudin was, and what were his claims to that distinction which the government conferred upon him, in appointing him to conduct a voyage of discovery, I have not the means of ascertaining; but judging from the whole tenor of his conduct, as exhibited in the narrative of the expedition, and concurrent testimony, it may be said that a more injudicious selection could hardly have been made.

Rumors of Captain Baudin's misconduct had affected the public mind, to the prejudice of the expedition; and even the government appeared to regret that the voyage had been undertaken... On the return to Paris of Péron and Lesueur, they experienced a coldness of reception...

There was but one course for the disheartened naturalists to pursue, and that was an appeal to the fruits of their manifold labors... At the instance of Péron and Lesueur, a committee of the Academy of Sciences, consisting of Messieurs Laplace, Bougainville, Fleurieu, Lacépéde and Cuvier, was appointed to examine [the collections brought in by the two ships]... a comprehensive report was made, from which the following summary is taken.

Of the five zoologists appointed by the government, two remained at the Isle of France. Two others perished... Péron alone was left; but supported by his invigorated ardor, and the efforts of his coadjutor Lesueur, a zoological collection was made, the extent and importance of which become more and more manifest. It is composed of more than one hundred thousand specimens... If we call to mind that the second voyage of Cook, fruitful as were its discoveries, made known not more than two hundred and fifty new species, and that all the united voyages of Carteret, Wallis, Furneaux, Mears, and even Vancouver, did not produce as great a number, -- it results that Péron and Lesueur alone have discovered more new animals than all the [other] traveling naturalists of modern days.

[After explaining why Péron's method of description of species was an improvement over methods of the Linnean school, the report continues -] A description, nevertheless, how complete soever it may be, can never give a sufficiently just idea of those singular forms, which have no precise term of comparison in objects previously known. Correct figures alone can supply the imperfection of language. Here the labors of which it is our duty to render an account, acquire a new interest. Fifteen hundred drawings or paintings, executed by M. Lesueur, with extreme precision, reproduce the principal objects which were collected by his careful industry, and that of this friend. All these drawings, either made from living animals or recent specimens, form the most complete and the most precious series of the kind that we have any knowledge of.

In a footnote, Ord explains that "When Mr. Lesueur came to America, he brought these drawings with him. It was thought at Paris that they ought to have been deposited in the library at the Garden of Plants; and some feeling was exhibited on the occasion, among the Professors of the Museum of Natural History."

Ord continues his memoir with an account of Lesueur's years and work in Philadelphia (1816-1825) and New Harmony (1826-1837). In 1837, Lesueur "bade farewell to the Wabash and directed his course to New Orleans," and from there to France. Ord writes of his own visit with Lesueur in Paris and of the establishment of the Museum in Le Havre:

In the month of September, 1838, the writer of this Memoir visited Paris; and had the happiness of embracing his old friend, whom he had not seen for thirteen years. Mr. Lesueur was then residing at No. 16, Rue Neuve St. Etienne, not far from the Garden of Plants. He had brought from the United States a valuable collection of specimens of natural history; and all his precious drawings and manuscripts, the fruits of his researches with Péron, and those subsequently made in the West Indies, and on the continent of North America.

...Sometime in the year 1843 or 1844, the project of founding a museum of natural history in the city of Havre, was set on foot; and Mr. Lesueur, who had taken a great interest in the measure, was looked on as one eminently capable... In 1845 he was chosen Curator of the Museum; and he removed to Havre in order to superintend the building; which was advancing towards completion.

On the 9th of May, 1846, he thus writes to me: "I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 13th of April, which reached me via Paris. I am occupied at this time in arranging the collections of our cabinet. As my presence is now essential, I have taken a small country house, not far from Havre. It is situated in a quiet valley, a short distance from the sea, which is visible from our windows..."

Today, most of Lesueur's work reposes in the Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre. I thank Jacqueline Bonnemains, Conservateur de le Collection Lesueur, for assistance in the preparation of this page. Her many publications pertaining to the Lesueur collection and the collection itself are described at the museum's website, accessible below.

Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre (Lesueur Collection)
Fishes Described and Drawn by C. A. Lesueur
Graptemys geographica Lesueur (Map turtle, first described by Lesueur)
Maclurites magnus Lesueur
New Harmony Scientists, Educators, Writers & Artists
Clark Kimberling Home Page