Cavelier de La Salle's expedition to Louisiana

Cavelier de La Salle's expedition to Louisiana

La Salle Expedition to Louisiana, 1684

© RMN - Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / All rights reserved

Publication date: October 2015

Historical context

Jean Antoine Théodore Gudin is today a forgotten painter. This exact contemporary of Victor Hugo, son of the General of the Empire Charles Étienne Gudin, killed during the battle of Valoutino, in Smolensk, in 1812, is however the author of a considerable work of excellence, as one of the his biographers, to "represent the waves and the outbursts of the sea" and to report "the great dramas of the ocean with a kind of savage poetry".

Marin after interrupting his studies, a student of Girodet and then of Gros, Gudin was noticed at the Salon of 1824, where, at the age of 22, he obtained the first class medal. Protected by the Duke of Orleans (the future Louis-Philippe), decorated with the Legion of Honor by Charles X, he became the first official painter of the navy and, as such, took part in the Algiers expedition ( 1830).

The works he draws from it brought him success with French and European audiences, and critics who compared him to Claude Lorrain and Joseph Vernet. He nevertheless still obtains many official orders, as for Versailles in 1844 of ninety-seven paintings illustrating the achievements of the French navy.

Here, in this work commissioned in 1839 by Louis-Philippe for the historical museum of Versailles, the painter evokes the second expedition of the Norman gentleman Cavelier de La Salle who, after having discovered and given Louisiana to France in 1682, left for two years later under the order of Louis XIV for a new expedition, which this time was to fail miserably.

Image Analysis

René Robert Cavelier de La Salle was born in Rouen in 1643. He renounced the priesthood in 1667 and joined his brother established in New France. In 1682, Cavelier de La Salle led a first expedition which, descending the Illinois then the Mississippi (called the Colbert River), ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. He then took possession of all the land in the Ohio and Mississippi basins and named them Louisiana.

In 1684, a new expedition was set up, with the consent of Louis XIV, who, at war with Spain, hoped to disrupt his adversary's supply of silver extracted from the mines of Mexico. But the new expedition, some three hundred men and women spread over four ships, this time trying to approach the Mississippi Delta by ocean bypassing Florida. One of the boats was quickly captured by the Spaniards and, due to navigation errors and incorrect charts, the expedition ran aground some 650 kilometers west of the mouth of the Mississippi.

It was this event that Gudin represented in this navy. On the left, we recognize The beautiful, the ship of Cavelier de La Salle; in the center is the three-mast The Joly and, finally, to the right, stranded in the distance in a sandbank, the frigate The Lovable. In the foreground of the painting, there is a small boat leaving The Joly to reach a rather inhospitable exotic shore. In the distance, the rays of a setting sun illuminate the sky and the sea.


Gudin excelled in works which evoked some great naval battles of the past, in which he skillfully mixed, in eventful compositions, waves, sea, flames, smoke and cloudy skies.

Here, he sets the tormented sky that has just been torn apart against the calm of the sea, all bathed in intense light, magnified by a setting sun symbolizing hope. The men, practically absent from the composition, seem very tiny in the face of the immensity of the ocean and the lands that we guess desert and hostile.

The painting, even if it does not bear all of its characteristics, relates to the romantic current which triumphed in France in the first half of the 19th century.e century. It thus evokes a wild and untamed nature, enhanced by a stormy sky and bathed in an unreal and fantastic light.

  • United States
  • boat
  • sea
  • Louis XIV
  • discoveries
  • Louis Philippe
  • Charles X
  • expedition


BÉRAUD Edmond, Memories of Baron Gudin, painter of the navy (1820-1870), Paris, Plon, 1921.From David to Delacroix: French painting from 1774 to 1830, cat. exp. (Paris, 1974-1975), Paris, National Museums Editions, 1974. GAINOT Bernard, The French Colonial Empire from Richelieu to Napoleon (1630-1810), Paris, Armand Colin, coll. “U: history”, 2015.

To cite this article

Pascal DUPUY, "Cavelier de La Salle's expedition to Louisiana"

Video: La Salles Lost Fort