Thursday 21 June 2018

Louis-Philippe Crépin: disaster in Lituya Bay, 1786

Louis-Philippe Crépin, Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska 
Oil on canvas, 104 cm x 149 cm.
Seattle Art Museum

In 2017 the Seattle Art Museum pulled off the considerable coup of acquiring this iconic painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, which depicts a tragic incident from the voyage of La Pérouse which took place in Lituya Bay in Alaska on 13th July 1786. Against an awe-inspiring backdrop of mountains and glaciers, two ship's boats were dramatically overwhelmed by the sea, with the loss of twenty-one lives.  Among those drowned were the  two sons of the wealthy financier, the marquis Jean-Joseph de Laborde, sponsor of the expedition and a personal friend of La Pérouse.  The elder brother Edouard-Jean-Joseph de Laborde Marchainville (b.1762), "tall, blond, and well instructed in navigation"  was a lieutenant on board the Astrolabe; the younger Ange-Auguste-Joseph de Laborde de Boutervilliers (b.1766) a naval cadet.  According to legend Marie-Antoinette herself had prevailed on La Pérouse to take them both with him.  Lengle as commander of the Astrolabe, made it his "inviolable rule" never to allow them in the same party, but on this occasion he had made an exception; he saw the excursion "as little more than a party of pleasure, in which the boats would be no more exposed to danger than in Brest Road in fine weather". In a letter of 22 September 1786, he wrote to his mother, "I had the indelible pain of seeing perish  MM. de Laborde, the brothers, M. de Flaissan and seven men from my crew in the same boat." 

When news of the incident reached France in May 1787, it had a considerable impact: it seemed a psychological turning point had been reached, giving the lie to Louis XVI's pledge that the voyage should succeed "without costing the life of a single man."  

Crépin's painting was commissioned in 1806 by Alexandre, marquis de Laborde (1773-1842), the  brother of the two drowned officers, a soldier, diplomat and well-known man of letters. It was much praised in the Salon of 1806 and was reproduced as a lithograph. The picture remained in the Laborde family, but found its way to Spain in the late 19th century. It was sold in a private sale by Christie's London in 2017.  

Here are the comments from the "curatorial argument" for the Seattle Art Gallery's acquisition:

The painting closely follows La Pérouse’s own narrative of the disaster and draws on images by the professional artists who illustrated the Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse. The two endangered boats teeter in the foreground amid boulders and high waves as a third tries vainly to reach them. The two mother ships emerge from behind Observatory Island (after the tragedy, La Pérouse redubbed this Cenotaph Island). The urgent efforts of the sailors caught up in the roiling waves are set against the majestic backdrop of the Fairweather mountain range. At the right, gesturing from a rock, are two members of the Tlingit tribe, witnesses to the event, who searched in vain for survivors, according to La Pérouse. The interaction with the French and the story of the shipwreck would remain part of the Tlingit oral tradition.

Crépin captures the men’s desperate actions as conditions suddenly changed. The two La Borde brothers, in the boat at right, offer a line to their doomed comrades just before they too are swept under. The terrible drama is all in the foreground, at eye level. Beyond the turbulent waves in the pass the bay is calm, the mountains of the Fairweather range are impassively still, and the sky is clear and blue.

Born in Paris, Louis-Philippe Crépin was a specialist in marine painting who had trained under celebrated artists Claude-Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert. His interest in marine subjects kindled by Vernet, Crépin made his debut at the Salon of 1796 with a painting of the port of Brest. His primary patron throughout his long career would be the Naval Ministry of the government. Many of his works are in the National Maritime Museum in Paris, while others are in provincial museums throughout France. This work would likely be the first painting by Crépin in an American museum.

This painting transcends the standard conventions of marine painting. It stands alone within the artist’s oeuvre, achieving a peak of clarity, drama, and pathos that are typical of more highly valued history painting. The prestige of the La Pérouse expedition, the spectacular American landscape, and the portraits of the Laborde brothers make this one of  Crépin’s most outstanding works. In his review of the 1806 Salon, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard singled out the painting: “But the most beautiful painting by M. Crépin, and the one which most attracted the attention of art lovers and artists, was the Shipwreck of the Dinghies of M. de la Peyrouse. It is in this tragic event that he has deployed all his genius and all the resources of his art. The scene is represented with a touching simplicity, and yet with an energy which inspires at once terror and pity. There are no superfluous figures or accessories: all dramatic interest is in the truth of the action. . . . In sum, this painting promises that he is the rightful successor to Vernet, and that no other country has produced a rival to match this celebrated man.”
See: "The ins and outs of acquisition: a newly discovered French masterpiece", Seattle Art Museum blog, post of 28.07.17

Notice for the painting on the Seattle Art Museum website;jsessionid=904E6B943B43D8F924D60D2D0A900C3E?ctx=9f078638-c454-43d3-88ef-6ddb101f1423&idx=14

The picture is currently on display at the Gallery in an exhibition entitled Extreme Nature: Two Landscape Paintings from the Age of Enlightenment [the second painting being  a depiction by Volaire of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius]  

The Shipwreck

The exploration of the north-west coast of America, with a view to French involvement in the fur trade, was one of the major objectives of the La Pérouse expedition. After rounding Cape Horn early in 1786 La Pérouse deviated from the suggested itinerary, to sail north to Maul and Alaska for a summer season in the Northern hemisphere.  June 1786 saw the Boussole and Astrolabe sail through increasingly cold, damp and foggy weather towards Alaska.  On 23rd June the beacon of Mount St. Elias came into view, but the crews felt daunted rather than elated by the sight of “masses of snow covering a barren treeless land”. It was not until  the beginning of July that they discovered Lituya Bay in the shadow of Mount Fairweather.  La Pérouse called it Port-des-Français and described it as “perhaps the most extraordinary place in the world” :

We had already visited the head of the bay, which is perhaps the most extraordinary place in the world. To form an idea of it, it is necessary to conceive a basin of water, unfathomable in the middle, bordered by peaked mountains, of great height, covered with snow, and without one blade of grass to decorate this vast heap of rocks, condemned by nature to eternal sterility. I never beheld the surface of the water ruffled by a single breath of wind. Nothing disturbs it but the fail of enormous masses of ice, which frequently separate from five different glaciers, while the sound is re-echoed by the distant mountains. The air is so calm, and the silence so profound, that the single voice of a man maybe heard half a league, as may the cries of a few sea-fowl, which deposit their eggs in the hollows of the rocks.[p.86]

 After some difficulty they found safe anchorage, in order to replenish supplies of wood and water, trade with the local Tlingit Indians and begin the task of charting and exploration.  It is possible that La Pérouse had secret orders to reconnoitre the site for a French “factory” - this would explain why he notionally purchased the island in the centre of the Bay from the natives and went through an “act of possession” by burying a claim in a bottle.  He installed an observatory, the third of the voyage.  Two boats were sent out to explore the bottom of the Bay to see if there was a passage through. In fact the Bay ends in a T-shaped wall of rock and ice in two basins blocked by immense glaciers. The boats had to brush aside chunks of ice as they progressed.  Langle and several officers climbed onto the glacier, but "all they could see was a continuous mass of ice and snow that must have reached up to the very summit of Mount Fairweather".  La Pérouse beached his boat only to have it swamped and thrown for some distance along the face of the glacier after a huge piece of ice broke off.  The party was soon forced to acknowledge the futility of the venture and return to the ships.

In mid-July, with the ships ready to leave, it was decided at the last minute to take a final set of soundings to complete Bernizet 's chart of the inlet. Early on the morning of the 13th July La Pérouse sent a detachment of officers and seamen in two biscayennes (pinnaces) and a jolly-boat, to take soundings at the entrance to the bay. Despite written instructions to be prudent, Lieutenant Descures, who led the operation, went too close to the entrance  which is narrowed by a long bar [the La Chaussee spit].  His boat was carried away by the current and swamped.  The second pinnace, which went to his aid, suffered a similar fate.  Modern commentators emphasise the treacherous natures of these waters - the pinched, shallow channel amplifies the current, causing tidal bores which sweep back into the Bay with  unpredictable force.


  • Despite La Pérouse's best efforts, the bodies of the twenty-one lost sailors were never found. On the central island, now renamed "Cenotaph Island",  the expedition set up a makeshift memorial, with an account of the incident buried in a bottle. Various monuments have been erected over the years, and in 1871 the Western Union Telegraph Company named several geographical features in the area after the men and ships of the expedition.  In 2003 members of the Association Salomon, with detecting equipment, thought that they had a found the original bottle but were prevented from retrieving it by the local Alaskan authorities.  There is currently no permanent memorial on the site.
  • In the marquis de Laborde's garden at Méréville, a rostral column by Hubert Robert, originally intended to celebrate the expedition's departure, served as a memorial to his dead sons. The blue-turquoise marble column, decorated with four ships' bows, can still be seen, re-sited to the château de Jeurre at  Morigny-Champigny near Étampes.
See Dominique Césari, "Le naufrage au Port des Français" Jardins anglo-chinois du XVIII° siècle dits parcs à fabriques [entry for Parc de Méréville]

  • In 1788 the Academy of Architecture proposed prize for a design for a centotaph for the island. The winning entry by Vien was a tour-de-force of neoclassical visionary design.
See Rosenau, "Engravings of the Grands Prix of the French Academy of Architecture", Architectural History Vol.3 1960.


Robert Inglis, "Lapérouse 1786: a French naval visit to Alaska" in  Enlightenment and exploration in the North Pacific, 1741-1805, ed. Stephen Haycox, James Barnett and Caedmon Liburd.  Cook Inlet Historical Society, Anchorage Museum, 1997, p.49-64. 

Posts in Professor Quentin Mackie's blog, Northwest Coast Archaeology: 
"La Perouse at Port des Francais (Lituya Bay)" 22.02.10.  (wave) 
"Raven de La Perouse", 21.02.2010 [A discussion of La Pérouse's visit in native Tlingit  tradition.]
Professor Quentin notes that La Pérouse "got off easy" - in 1958 tsunami-prone Lituya Bay experienced the highest wave ever recorded on earth, with a run-up on land of 524 vertical metres.  

Here is a trip round the bay (in clement weather!) in 2013:
FlemingYachts, Venture to Lituya bay [YouTube video]

The catastrophe as imagined by Nicolas Ozanne for the French edition of La Pérouse's journal.


The Account of La Pérouse
At ten in the morning I saw our jolly-boat returning. A little surprised, as I did not expect it so soon, I asked M. Boutin, before he got on board, if anything had happened; apprehending at the moment some attack from the savages.  The appearance of M. Boutin was by no means calculated to allay my fears.  His countenance displayed the most lively sorrow. He quickly informed me of the dreadful loss he had witnessed; and in which he must himself have been involved, had not his firmness of mind enabled him to perceive the resources that were left in such extreme peril.

 Drawn, by following his commanding officer, into the midst of the breakers, which set into the passage, while the sea ran out at the rate of ten or twelve knots an hour, it occurred to him, to present the stern of the boat to the surge, so that yielding to the wave it might not fill, while it would be drifted out stern foremost by the tide.  He soon perceived that he had left the breakers ahead, and found himself in the open sea.  More intent on the safety of others than of himself, he rowed along the edge of the breakers, in hopes of saving some of his unfortunate comrades, and he even returned into them again, but was driven back by the tide. At length he got upon the shoulders of M. de Mouton, that he might command a more extensive view; but in vain, all was swallowed up and M. Boutin re-entered the bay at still water.  The sea having become smooth, he had entertained some hope of the Astrolabe's pinnace, as he had only seen ours go down.

M. de Marchainville was at that time a full quarter of a league from the place of danger, being in as smooth water as in the closest harbour: but this young officer, prompted by a generosity, imprudent no doubt, as, under such circumstances any assistance was impossible, and possessing too much courage and magnanimity to make this reflection when his friends were in such extreme danger, flew to their assistance, rushed into the same breakers, and perished with his commander, the victim of his generosity, and of the peremptory disobedience of that officer's orders.

M. de Langle soon came on board my ship, not less overwhelmed with grief than myself, and informed me with tears, that the misfortune was far greater than I had supposed.   Since our departure from France he had made if an inviolable law to himself, never to send the two brothers, Messrs. La Borde Marchainville and La Borde Boutervilliers, on the same party; and on this occasion he had yielded for the first time to their wish to take a walk and shoot together, as indeed we both considered this expedition as little more than a party of pleasure, in which the boats would be no more exposed to danger than in Brest Road in fine weather.

Some canoes of the savages came now to inform us of the fatal accident. These rude unpolished men expressed by signs, that they had seen both our boats sink, and that to render them assistance was utterly impossible. We loaded them with presents; and endeavoured to make them understand, that all our wealth would not have been too ample a compensation for him who had saved a single man.

Nothing could be more powerful in awakening their humanity. They hastened to the seashore, and spread themselves over both sides of the bay. I had already sent M. de Clonard with the longboat to the eastward, where, if any individual had been so fortunate as, contrary to all probability, to save himself, it was likely he would land. M. de Langle went to the west, that no place might remain unvisited; and I remained on board to take care of the two vessels, with a sufficient number of men to have nothing to fear from the savages, against whom prudence required us to be constantly on our guard. Almost all the officers, and several other persons, accompanied Messrs. de Langle and Clonard. They proceeded three leagues along the sea-shore, but they saw not the least fragment of the wreck. Still I had retained a gleam of hope. The mind does not easily pass at once from a state of satisfaction to profound grief. But the return of our boats dissipated the illusion, and reduced me to a state of sorrow, which words can but feebly express.....

Nothing remained for us but to quit with speed a country that had proved so fatal. But we still owed a few days to the families of our unhappy friends: too hasty departure would have left doubt and anxiety in the minds of people in Europe, who would not have considered, that the current extends only a league without the passage; that neither the boats, nor the people cast away in them, could have been driven farther; and that the fury of the waves in that place left no hope of their return. If, contrary to all probability, any one had been able to return, as it must be in the vicinity of the bay, Iresolved to wait some days: but I quitted the 1786. anchorage of the island, and took that of the bed ”of sand, on the west side of the entrance. Themoving from one place to the other, though only a league distant, occupied me five days, during which we had a heavy gale of wind from the east, that would have endangered us greatly, had we not been anchored on a good bottom of mud. It was fortunate our anchors did not drive, for we were less than a cable's length from the shore.  The contrary winds detained us longer than I intended, so that we could not sail till the 30th of July, eighteen days after the event which it has given me so much pain to relate, and the remembrance of which will ever render me unhappy.  Before our departure, we erected on the island in the middle of the bay, to which I gave the name of Isle du Cenotaphe, or Cenotaph Island, a monument to the memory of our unfortunate companions; and M. de Lamanon wrote the following inscription and account, which he buried in a bottle at the foot of the monument:


"On the 4th July 1786 the frigates la Boussole and l'Astrolabe, which sailed from Brest the 1st of August 1785, arrived in the port.  Owing to the care of M. de la Perouse, commander in chief of the expedition; of the viscount de Langle, commander of the Astrolabe;  of Messrs. de Clonard and de Monti, first lieutenants of the two ships; and of the other officers and the surgeons, the crew had experienced none of those diseases which usually attend long voyages. M. de la Pérouse congratulated himself, as we all did, for having sailed from one end of the world to the other, through dangers of every kind, having visited people reputed barbarians, without losing a single man, or spilling a drop of blood. On the 13th of July, three boats departed at five in the morning, to place the soundings on the plan that had been drawn of the bay. They were commanded by M. d’Escures, lieutenant of a man of war and knight of St. Lewis. M. de la Pérouse had given him written instructions, expressly prohibiting him from approaching the current; but at the moment when he thought himself at a distance from it, he was drawn into it. Messrs. de La Borde, two brothers, and M. de Flassan, who were in the boat of the second frigate, hesitated not to expose their own lives, to assist their comrades. But, alas! they only shared their fate. The third boat was under the command of M. Boutin, lieutenant of a man of war. This officer, bravely struggling against the breakers, made vain but useless attempts to assist his friends for some hours, and would have perished likewise, but for the superior construction of his boat, his enlightened prudence, that of M. Laprise Mouton, lieutenant of a frigate, his second, and the activity and prompt obedience of his crew, consisting of John Marie, cockswain, Lhostis, le Bas, Corentin Jers, and Monens, all four seamen. The Indians appeared to participate in our grief, which is extreme. Affected but not discouraged, by our misfortune, we departed the 30th of July, to continue our voyage."

Account of Lieutenant Boutin
On the 13th of July, ten minutes before six in the morning, I set off from the Boussole in the jolly-boat, with orders to attend M. d’Escures, who had the command of our pinnace; and M. de Marchainville was to join us with the pinnace of the Astrolabe. The instructions given to M. d'Escures in writing, by M. de la Pérouse, which had been read to me, directed him to employ the three boats in sounding the bay; to place the soundings, according to the bearings, on the plan given him; and to sound the passage, if the water were smooth, and measure it's width: but he was expressly charged, not to expose the boats under his command to the least danger, and not to approach the passage, if there were the least appearance of breakers, or even swell. When we had doubled the western point of the island; near which we were anchored, I perceived the passage covered with breakers from one side to the other, and that it was impossible for us to approach it. M. d’Escures was then a-head, lying on his oars, apparently waiting for me; but when I was within musket-shot of him, he rowed on; this he several times repeated; but his boat rowing faster than mine, I found myself unable to join him . At a quarter after seven, having constantly steered for the passage, we were within two cables' length of it, when the pinnace put about, and I followed in her wake. We were then standing towards the bay, leaving the passage astern of us. Our pinnace was a-head of my boat within hail, and that of the Astrolabe a quarter of a league off within the bay. M. d’Escures then hailed me gaily: ‘I believe we can do nothing better than go to breakfast, for the sea breaks terribly in the passage.’ I answered: ‘I think so too; and. I fancy we must content ourselves with fixing the limits of the sandy bay on the larboard of the entrance.’ M. de Pierrevert, who was with was a-head, as vainly attempted to gain the west. We were obliged therefore to lay our heads to the north, that we might not fall broadside to the breakers. The beginning of the surge now appeared at a very little distance from my boat. I thought it advisable, therefore, to let go the grapnel, but it would not hold: fortunately it was not made fast to the thwart, and so ran clear out, thus freeing us from a weight which might have been fatal to us. In an instant I was in the midst of the heaviest waves, which almost filled the boat; yet she did not go down, and still answered the helm, so that I was able to keep her stern to the surge, which gave me great hope of escaping the danger.

While I was letting go the grapnel, the pinnace increased her distance from me, and did not get into the breakers till some minutes after me. I had lost sight of her when the sea first broke into my boat: but at one of those moments when I was at the top of a wave, I saw her on her broadside sixty or eighty yards a-head, but could perceive neither men nor oars. My sole hope had rested on her stemming the current; for I was too certain that she would be lost if she were carried away by it; since, to escape, required a boat that would swim when full of water, and answer her helm in that situation, to prevent her from oversetting, qualities of which neither, un- fortunately, was possessed by our pinnace. 

I was still in the midst of the breakers, looking round me on all sides; and I perceived, that astern of the boat the waves formed a chain extending to the south as far as I could see.— They extended also a considerable way to the west. But I discovered, that, if I could get a hundred yards to the eastward, I should be in a much less dangerous sea. Accordingly I exerted every effort to accomplish this, by pulling to the starboard in the intervals between the seas; and by five-and-twenty minutes after seven I was out of danger, having to contend with nothing but a heavy swell, and some short waves occasioned by the west-north-west breeze. 
After having baled the boat, I thought of assisting my unfortunate comrades; but my hopes were at an end. 
From the moment I saw our pinnace going down among the breakers, I had pulled by intervals towards the east, but was some minutes before I could extricate myself from them.  It was impossible, that persons wrecked in the midst of such a rapid current should get out of its course, at the mercy of which they must drive the remainder of the tide, which continued to set out of the bay till a quarter before nine: beside, could the most experienced swimmer resist the violence of such waves even for a few moments   Still, as I could make search nowhere, with any show of reason, except in the direction of the current, I laid the boat's head to the southward, and rowed along the edge of the breakers, which were on my starboard hand, changing my course every moment after objects I perceived floating, which from time to time gave me hopes, but which, on my approach, proved to be nothing but seals or sea-weeds. 

As there was a heavy swell, when I was on the top of a wave my horizon was pretty extensive, so that I could have perceived an oar, or a piece of wreck, four or five hundred yards distant.
My eyes were soon turned towards the eastern point of the entrance, on which I perceived some men making signals by waving their cloaks. These, I afterwards found, were savages: but at the time I supposed them to be the crew of the Astrolabe's pinnace, waiting for the slack water to come to our assistance. I was far from thinking, that my unfortunate friends had fallen vic-tims to their generous boldness.
At three quarters after eight o'clock, the tide being turned, there were no breakers, only a heavy swell. I thought it incumbent on me  o continue my search in this swell, following  the direction of the ebb, which had ceased ; but  I was as unsuccessful in this search as in the  former. At nine o'clock, perceiving the floodtide set in from the south-west ; having neither  provision, sail, nor grapnel ; my boat's crew wet  and chilled; apprehensive that I should not be  able to re-enter the bay when the flood had  acquired all its force ; finding too, that it  already flowed strongly to the north-east, which  prevented my getting to the south, where my  search should have been continued; I returned  to the bay, steering to the north. 

Already the passage was nearly shut in by the eastern point. The sea still broke on each of the points; but it was smooth in the middle.  At length I gained the entrance, keeping near  the larboard point, on which were the Americans  who made the signals, and whom I had taken  for Frenchmen. They made signs, that they had seen two boats overset: and, as I could not perceive the Astrolabe's pinnace, I was but too certain of the fate of M. de Marchainville, whom I knew too well to suppose he would reflect on the inutility of the danger to which he must be exposed.   Still, however, as we are prone to flatter ourselves, I retained some slight hope, that I should find him on board our ships, whither  it was possible he might have gone for assistance: accordingly my first words, when I got alongside, were: “Do you know anything of M. d’Mar- hainville *and the answer, ‘No,' convinced me of his loss. - 

After these particulars, I conceive I ought to explain the motives of the conduct of M. d'Escures. It is impossible he could ever have thought of entering the passage. His design was merely to approach it; and he imagined he kept himself at a distance more than sufficient to be out of all danger. But in this distance he was deceived, as well as myself, and all the eighteen persons in both the boats. It is not for me to say how far this mistake was pardonable, or why it was impossible to judge of the strength of the current, as I should be thought to be offering my own excuse; for I repeat it, I conceive the distance more than sufficient, and even the sight of the coast, which appeared flying to the north with extreme velocity, only excited my astonishment. Without attempting to particularise all the reasons which contributed to inspire us with so fatal a confidence, I cannot avoid remarking, that, on the day of our entrance into the bay, our boats were above two hours sounding the passage, in every direction, without finding any current. It is true, that, when our ships attempted to enter it, they were driven back by the ebb: but the wind was so faint, that our boats, at the very same time, stemmed the tide with the utmost ease. Lastly, on the 11th of June, when the moon was at the full, our two captains themselves, accompanied by several officers, had sounded the passage, went out with the ebb, returned with the flood, and perceived nothing that could lead them to suspect the least danger,”particularly with boats well manned. Hence it must be inferred, that the violence of the current must have been owing to some particular cause, &S all extraordinary melting of snow,t or strong gales of wind, which had not reached into the bay, but unquestionably blew with violence in the offing.

M. de Marchainville was a quarter of a league from the passage within the bay, when I was draw into it. From that time I saw nothing of him: but all who were acquainted with him must know how his noble and generous character would prompt him to act. It is probable that when he perceived our two boats in the midst of the breakers, unable to comprehend how we could have been drawn into it, he must have supposed a grapnel rope had snapped, or we had lost our oars, and immediately rowed to the breakers to assist us. Seeing us struggling in *the midst of the waves, he would have listened only to the dictates of his natural courage, and Come to Our Succour, at the hazard of perishing with us. Assuredly a glorious death: but how painful to him, who, having escaped the danger, can never hope to behold again his companions, or the heroes who came to save him - -
I cannot designedly have omitted any essential fact, or misrepresented those I have related: M. Mouton, who was with me, is here to correct me, if my memory have made any mistake. His firmness, with that of the cockswain and four rowers, contributed not a little to save us. My orders were executed in the midst of the breakers with as much precision, as in the most ordinary circumstances. Signed, BOUTIN.
Jean-François de Galaup, comte de la Pérouse
A Voyage Round the World Performed in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787 and 1788 (1799), vol. 2

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