A watercolourist and draughtsman, Louis Auguste de Sainson was born in Paris on 26 April 1800. He began his lengthy naval career in a secretarial position in France which enabled him to travel to Australia and create hundreds of drawings and engravings.
watercolourist and draughtsman, was born in Paris on 26 April 1800, according to his personal service file. He began his naval career in a secretarial position at the French Atlantic port of Rochefort, working there from 21 August 1825 until 6 January 1826, then volunteered to join the Astrolabe as a draughtsman. He was recommended to the expedition’s commander Dumont d’Urville by Quoy, one of the naturalists, and joined the ship at Toulon on 7 February 1826. Until the ship returned to France on 1 April 1829 de Sainson earned his monthly salary of 100 francs by producing a total of nearly 500 drawings.
The Astrolabe first visited Australia from early October to late December 1826 (King George Sound, Westernport, and Jervis Bay, Sydney). It made a second visit from mid-December 1827 to early January 1828 (Hobart Town). A large collection of de Sainson’s drawings is on deposit in the French National Archives. A small collection of watercolours (Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris) includes two Australian subjects: View taken in George’s Street at Sydney and an untitled work corresponding to the published lithograph of the view of the clearings at the foot of Mount Wellington, Van Diemen’s Land. There is no independent evidence that he ever painted in oils and for this and other reasons the traditional attribution to de Sainson of an unsigned, undated oil painting, Inauguration du MonumentÉlevépar L’Astrolabe á LaPérouse éVanikoro, 14 Mars, 1828 (NLA), was questioned in 1984. The identification, description and analysis of the vast number of lithographs, etchings and engravings after de Sainson are extensive and still almost virgin areas of investigation.
From 11 June 1829 to 31 December 1834 de Sainson was a member of the editorial team preparing the official account of the expedition for publication. One engraving of five Aboriginal portraits after de Sainson appeared in the Zoological Atlas : one engraving and 36 lithographs of Australian artefacts, landscapes, townscapes and further Aboriginal subjects were included in the Historical Atlas . Careful though de Sainson’s portraits are, as Bernard Smith has said, they 'veer occasionally towards the ignoble and comic savage when he depicts Australian aborigines, as they err on the side of the romantic when he depicts the Maori. But his drawings do mark a considerable advance upon the work of his predecessors.’
In November 1829, at Dumont d’Urville’s request, de Sainson was promoted commis de marine 3e classe . He became a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in August 1831 and a commis de 2e classe in September 1833, having applied for promotion a month earlier. Some time before this he began editorial work on the Album Historique illustrating the voyage of La Favorite and in June 1835 applied for three months’ leave from his regular service to bring this to a conclusion. Several of the aquatints in this volume are after drawings by de Sainson, none of an Australian subject. On 21 May 1836, he was appointed to a position in the central administration but resigned on 1 June. The following year (1837) found him as secretary to a French scientific mission travelling in southern Russia and in that context his portrait was lithographed by Raffet in 1848. No reliable biographical details have yet been discovered beyond this, although guesses about his year of death have been made.