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Auguste Morisot in Venezuela

In 1886, at twenty-nine years of age, Auguste Morisot accompanied the well-known French naturalist and explorer Jean Chaffanjon to Venezuela for nine months. Morisot’s task was to make scientific drawings of the region’s flowers under Chaffanjon’s direction while they traced the path of the Orinoco, one of the longest rivers in South America; and Chaffanjon’s was to secure his fame by locating the river’s source. Although Chaffanjon claimed to have done so on December 18, 1886, this claim turned out to be untrue and he was forced to turn back because they lacked provisions (the river’s source was not located until 1951). Sponsored by the French government, the expedition paid only Morisot’s travel expenses. And, as we know from the journal he kept throughout their journey, Chaffanjon’s aggressive character chafed with the artist’s sensitive temperament. Not only did he claim to have found the source of the Orinoco when Morisot was laid up with malaria, but they also parted on bad terms. When they returned to France, Morisot’s role in the expedition disappeared from Chaffanjon’s published account. It did, however, bring Morisot enough renown in France to help him become the director of the art academy of Lyon and marry a woman above his class whom he loved dearly.

The expedition also yielded a trove of drawings by Morisot: his exquisitely detailed studies of flora and fauna, his records of boat travel and passing through ports in the Caribbean, and his closely observed views of the Orinoco River and the people who lived on it. The drawings, photographs, and other objects displayed here are drawn from some 3,000 documents from the expedition that are housed in the Colección Cisneros. This presentation of the images Morisot produced while traveling in Venezuela for nine months offers a glimpse of the enormous breadth and variety of the experience of an artist on such an expedition in its near totality. As such, it offers an extraordinarily uncommon view of a European artist’s experience on an expedition to Latin America. That so late in the19th century—and after the advent of photography—an artist was still deemed essential to such scientific expeditions, says a great deal about the value placed on the artist's power of observation. Morisot’s visual records of the expedition provide a rare opportunity to see earlier romantic and picturesque modes of organizing the landscape, infused with the spontaneity and naturalism of in situ drawing, painting, and photography.

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