Petit was the artist for a French voyage to Australia, whose job, according to the eminent scientist Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu, was to record 'all that which may be of interest for the history of Man.' His depictions of the Aborigines have an immediacy and directness unlike any previous images of them.
painter, was born in Paris, youngest son of Nicolas Petit, a fan-maker, and Marie-Nicole, née Minglet. He signed on as gunner’s mate on the voyage to Australia of Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste , a naval and scientific expedition sponsored by Napoleon under the command of Nicolas Baudin and departing from Le Havre in October 1800. The three artists assigned to the expedition left at Mauritius, and Petit and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur were appointed in late April in their stead. Petit, who had studied in David’s studio at the Louvre, was to concentrate on what the eminent scientist Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu later called 'all that which may be of interest for the history of Man’. The results are a series of impressive portraits of Tasmanian Aborigines in the published account of the expedition, Voyage des Découvertes aux Terres Australes (Paris 1807 16). His original drawings and finished watercolours for the book are in the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Le Havre.
After the expedition returned to Lorient in March 1804 (without their quarrelsome commander who had died in Mauritius), Petit began preparing his drawings for publication, but he died on 21 October when gangrene set in following a fall. He seems to have had an engaging, amiable personality. Péron describes how, for example, Petit 'displayed before the natives some feats of sleight of hand, which diverted them very much’. However, in what seemed to the French an inexplicable display of violence, he was nearly killed by an Aborigine whom he had been sketching and subsequently carried a gun on field trips, contrary to Baudin’s orders.
Petit’s depictions of the Aborigines, close to the picture plane, have an immediacy and directness unlike any previous images of them, while the full-length figures have a silky, rather mannerist elegance. Before their publication in France, four prints were issued in London in 1803 by George Riley. Several fine examples of Petit’s work appeared on the art market in 1988.