The passions of Louis XVI for the navy, clock-making and mechanics.
Author: Nicolas André Monsiau (1754-1837)
Provenance : France
Characteristics/Origins: Oil on canvas. Versailles, musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon © RMN (Château de Versailles)/Gérard Blot
A seated Louis XVI gives instructions to Captain La Pérouse, whom he has asked to
lead a round-the-world voyage of exploration. The navy minister, Maréchal de Castries, is behind the king. The globe on the table evokes the journey. Louis XVI wanted the mission to rival the English explorer James Cook's recent expedition in its discoveries. The king himself gave the expedition's instructions and scientific, economic, ethnological and political goals: La Pérouse was to map the planet, set up new trading posts and meet unknown peoples.
On 1 August 1785, 227 people, including 17 scientists in various fields, boarded the Astrolabe and Boussole to set out on a four-year voyage. One of the ships had a library where they could document their research. La Pérouse sent his notebooks, reports and observations, all of which are in the national archives, to Versailles from each port-of-call. But in 1788 the ships sank off the coast of Australia, losing everybody aboard. When Louis XVI mounted the scaffold five years later he reportedly asked about news of La Pérouse. The expedition, probably one of the most important of its time, still captures the imagination.
Several decades after the French Revolution Louis XVIII, who reigned from 1814 to 1824, tried to rehabilitate his brother, Louis XVI. This painting vaunting the late king's glory is part of that effort.