A Look Inside the Diary of Auguste Morisot

March 4, 2016

In 1998, the CPPC succeeded in acquiring the legacy of French artist Auguste Morisot (1857–1951), who accompanied the 1886 expedition of anthropologist and explorer Jean Chaffanjon, whose goal it was to be the first to reach the sources of the Orinoco River. Although the expedition failed to discover the exact spot of the birth of the great river, its scientific achievements gained great renown in its day, serving as the inspiration and documentary source for Jules Verne’s novel The Mighty Orinoco.

Throughout this trip, which lasted about eight months, Morisot wrote a detailed diary and made a significant number of descriptive pictorial works of the social and ecological reality of that territory. Navigating the Guayana and Amazonas regions, Morisot captured their biological and ecological diversity; the customs and ethnic types of their inhabitants; their human settlements; and economic activity.

In this travel journal, first published by the Fundación Cisneros in 2002 and now available as a PDF on our website, the artist uses his extraordinary powers of observation in inviting us to apprehend in a tangible way the sometimes oppressive experiences of the explorers and the precarious conditions in which they had to work.

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Map of of routes taken by Auguste Morisot and his expedition crew. Map by Rafael Santana
Map of of routes taken by Auguste Morisot and his expedition crew. Map by Rafael Santana


View the map in detail.


Diary of Auguste Morisot, 1886–1887 (excerpts)

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Left: Auguste Morisot, On the “Washington” (February 15, 1886). Sanguine chalk on paper. Right: Louis Appian, Auguste Morisot, three months after his return from the expedition (August 1887). Albumen print
Left: Auguste Morisot, On the “Washington” (February 15, 1886). Sanguine chalk on paper. Right: Louis Appian, Auguste Morisot, three months after his return from the expedition (August 1887). Albumen print

How many thoughts this vast sea awakens in me, when I lean on the prow of the boat staring into the depths extending before me, seized by the consuming fevers of the unknown and trying to penetrate the dark veil of my destiny; but what nostalgia seizes my soul when, alone in the stern, I hear nothing but the splash of the propeller whose knocking distances me farther each day from those I love. My gaze follows the wake, whose large unending ribbon unspools toward the horizon, and my mind crosses the beyond, turning to clearly see the saddened faces of my loved ones, and my heart bleeds. (Excerpt from page 53, February 9)

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Auguste Morisot, Sunrise in El Carito (June 14, 1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Sunrise in El Carito (June 14, 1886). Graphite on paper

We woke up at five in the Macareo, one of the small interior branches of the Orinoco delta, about three hundred meters wide. We slipped between two steep banks, bordered with tall forests, towering and majestic. This first outside view of the virgin forest is so unexpected, so captivating, that I want to shout my admiration.

We are entirely surrounded. You cannot see more than a kilometer forward or back, so sinuous is this waterway, and each of its successive meanders presents a new surprise, an unexpected silhouette, a more striking impression.

On the banks, here rugged, there flat, are compact masses of vegetation: leaves, plants, vines, branches, all intertwined and confused, forming a veritable wall of greenery where plant life seems to drown out all other life; where the faint morning breeze that just touches us seems to have no access!

This forest, its appearance hostile, impenetrable, as if closed to every human being, is so beautiful in its grandeur, so calm in its imposing majesty, that I feel immediately overcome by its wonderful attractions. Yes, I filled my eyes and my heart with this magnificent nature, and in spite of the need to launch exclamations at every turn of the Bolívar’s wheel, I remain silent. Otherwise, such spectacles left my partner cold, since he has seen them before, and also does not see them from the same point of view. With you, my friends, I would have liked to share my impressions. How nice it would be to see these beauties together! My emotions would increase a hundred-fold! From time to time, some banks appear bare, sandy. Animals, seen resting, are stationed in the sand; some capybaras surprised in their quietude slowly disappear under rifle fire from some passengers. Some jabirus, great white herons with a red collar, also called garzones soldados, erect their tall stature stand at the foot of the leafy wall like vigilant sentinels. They are also the object of some gunshots, without being affected. (Excerpt from page 126, April 6)

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Auguste Morisot, The “Bolívar” at the Port of Ciudad Bolívar (April 9, 1886). Graphite and gouache on paper
Auguste Morisot, The “Bolívar” at the Port of Ciudad Bolívar (April 9, 1886). Graphite and gouache on paper

Ciudad Bolívar, formerly Angostura, located on the right bank of the Orinoco, 420km from the sea, is the third San Tomé, capital of Venezuelan Guayana. This capital, first founded at the mouth of the Caroni River, later moved to Old Guyana, in the second half of the eighteenth century, was finally built on its permanent site where the river, caught between rocky hills, is narrower (eight hundred meters, more or less). For this reason, San Tomé received the new name of Angostura (narrowing), and after independence, it took the name of the great Liberator: Bolívar, or Ciudad Bolívar.

Today it is essentially a mercantile center, with about twelve thousand inhabitants. There isn’t any industry; but they are occupied with gold mining, commerce, and trade. The only means of transportation of imported goods and export products are steamboats and sailing ships going up the Orinoco to Bolívar. They import all kinds of groceries, objects, and industrial products from all countries, which trade houses sell at fabulous prices to residents and traders from the Orinoco and Río Negro. These traders, adventurous merchants, are the intermediaries between the producers and trading houses. They travel up the river in large boats loaded with food and objects of all kinds for exchange. They stop to provision the river towns and even go to the interior to peddle their wares in competition with the country's products: cocoa, vanilla, Tonka beans or sarrapia, sugar cane, rubber, gums of many kinds, buying or exchanging with the natives at despicably low prices. They then take those products to the city merchants, who, without any work, deliver them for consumption and export at great profit. At this point the Orinoco is very low, it is the end of the summer or dry season. Soon the rainy or winter season will begin. Then the river swells prodigiously. Its level rises ten to fifteen meters and its waters sometimes reach the first houses of Bolívar, about twenty meters from its current level. Can you imagine the mass of water that must fall within the six rainy months? Beyond the flooded plains Bolívar a true inland sea is formed. (Excerpt from page 138, April 9)

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Auguste Morisot, Ceiba Trees (April 14, 1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Ceiba Trees (April 14, 1886). Graphite on paper

At the Alameda, the huge ceiba trees, with their leafy tops, dominate on the pathways and sand dunes. Their colossal trunks open out onto the ground in multiple compartments that are veritable stables or boxes adequate to shelter a horse. Each rising river dismantles their bases and uncovers their monstrous roots, conveying the impression of all manner of apocalyptic forms; countless reptiles are intertwined, squirming and slithering in multiple contortions to sink still ten or fifteen meters below me on the sandy ground. Real hair of a giant Gorgon. (Excerpt from page 142, April 12)

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Auguste Morisot, Flower of the Acacia, Ciudad Bolívar (1886). Watercolor and graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Flower of the Acacia, Ciudad Bolívar (1886). Watercolor and graphite on paper

Study of flowers picked from one of the magnificent acacias in the market square, located a little counter to the shops and separated from the river; nice walk shaded by these elegant trees whose mass of bright red flowers has earned them the name in French of flamboyant. (Excerpt from page 143, April 14)

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Auguste Morisot, Left: Inside our ranch—Night of the first storm (1886). Graphite on paper. Right: Leopoldo Liccioni’s nap at dawn (May 1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Left: Inside our ranch—Night of the first storm (1886). Graphite on paper. Right: Leopoldo Liccioni’s nap at dawn (May 1886). Graphite on paper

The palm roof shelters us from sun and rain, but not the cool night; and if during the day we are almost naked, it is wise to wrap oneself at night. We must roll ourselves up in flannel, encumber ourselves with Moorish wool, put on shoes and sandals against mosquitoes and throw our blankets over our hammocks the moment we wake up in the cool of the night. And this veritable ritual merely to go into the world of dreams is quite a job. 

Although sleep is always late in coming, I appreciate the hammock as much as the best of beds.

The night of Maundy Thursday a real storm swept over our roof. It was impossible to protect the lamp against the gusts of wind. We had to relight it several times.

Beneath the inky night outside, its flickering flame drew in intermittent, shifting light the hammocks, rifles, helmets and different objects hanging from the posts and beams. Suddenly, dazzling lightning burned the night with a loud crash and vigorously highlighted those same objects as black silhouettes against a fiery sky.

All night long, our hammock was rocked by a furious wind wet with rain that pummeled us.

Completely wrapped in my blanket, it did not bother me too much. (Excerpt from page 155, April 19–24)

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Auguste Morisot, Left: Carib Indian, Ciudad Bolívar (May 1886). Graphite on paper. Right: Auguste Morisot, Carib Indian Women, Ciudad Bolívar (May 1886). Watercolor and graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Left: Carib Indian, Ciudad Bolívar (May 1886). Graphite on paper. Right: Auguste Morisot, Carib Indian Women, Ciudad Bolívar (May 1886). Watercolor and graphite on paper

Some Carib indians bring products from the interior that they exchange or sell in Bolívar to have some money; the city also uses them to clean the streets, squares. They all wear, belted at the waist, a single band of dark blue cotton, with one end elegantly thrown over the shoulder; the rest of the body, torso and legs, is naked. These Indians live and camp near their dugouts, on the shore.

Women do their laundry and cooking on the rocks, in the shadow of the storehouses that dominate the river. I worked with great diligence, taking my notes clandestinely, so wild are they. However, unnoticed, I was able to capture some silhouettes, including an Indian crouched behind one of her companions looking for lice in his thick blue-black hair and eating them. Some are naked in their blue cloth.

To come to the city, the women equip themselves with a great red shirt/skirt, lifted before them by their prominent bellies. The voluminous clothing hangs, loose, with a pleated straight line falling from the armpits, with short sleeves, and a kind of wide neck with folds covering the shoulders. The lower part of the clothing is adorned with frilly yellow, blue, and green bands. A varicolored handkerchief is knotted graciously on the head, partly falling freely over the shoulders. Color is much sought after by women. I prefer the navy blue worn by the men.

Some Caribs live here permanently. One day, a Carib who came to the restaurant with his wife, carrying coal (as they are carboneros), agreed to take the time to pose for a sketch. These Indians are easy going, speak Spanish pretty well, and are more or less the only ones who have sought contact with civilization. We will soon see others even more typical, in their own environment, who unlike these have not suffered change. (Excerpt from page 186, May 24)

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Auguste Morisot, Fort Chubasque (July 2, 1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Fort Chubasque (July 2, 1886). Graphite on paper

The shore, all along, is full of fissures and is broken in ravines. As the swollen river mines and excavates the edges, clearing the roots from the trees, they fall sharply in the Orinoco with an immense noise. Woe to the falca passing by at that moment! Sailors cling to those submerged, half-drowned trees and their branches to overcome the current when there is no breeze. But often they make no progress, and it seems they were born tired, like Guignol. By the way, I apologize for my handwriting, I’m writing beneath the tarp, while we are navigating. When we move to the sail, it is less jolting, but is not like when the men propel the falca with the throttle! And to think I even draw like this! Since Ciudad Bolívar, I have not wasted my time and if I continue like this I'll have a beautiful album. As we go along, I'll take more pleasure in this; it is much more varied and less monotonous than in Ciudad Bolívar. (Excerpt from page 209, June 17)

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Auguste Morisot, Guasarapa (June 18, 1886). Graphite and gouache on paper
Auguste Morisot, Guasarapa (June 18, 1886). Graphite and gouache on paper

In the afternoon (not to be confused with after lunch) we stop at Guasarapa, a small village nestled on the edge of a forest. A majestic tree dominates the banks. Maybe the next flood will undermine its roots and the giant will fall into the river. Here the Orinoco is an average of three kilometers wide. Two small curiaras come aground near us. Mosquitoes devour us. Unpleasant evening. We spent the night aboard the boat. High humidity and a strong squall. Our blankets are soaked. (Excerpt from page 209, June 17)

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Auguste Morisot, Changuango (1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Changuango (1886). Graphite on paper

As you know, my mission is drawing flora and fauna, so all the curious flowers we discover, I draw while standing, directly if possible, or under the tarp before it wilts. If I do not have time or some inconvenience prevents me from drawing a flower, I immediately take the imprint, as well as exotic leaves, with original shapes. We just found a splendid plant, changuango. A large tuber, like a flattened turnip, like a potato, but what a difference! A beautiful and strange stem, straight and striped, rises from the tuber. I use it like an eel skin; at the height of a man three or four large umbrella-shaped leaves open, very decorative. (Excerpt from page 230, July 1)

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Auguste Morisot, Indian Inscriptions from Cerro Pintado (September 25, 1886). Graphite on paper
Auguste Morisot, Indian Inscriptions from Cerro Pintado (September 25, 1886). Graphite on paper

Immediately after drinking our daily gourd of milk, with horses hired the day before and accompanied by a guide (zambo), we go to document the inscriptions of Cerro Pintado—not painted as the name implies, but engraved, carved, just one dozen kilometers south of Atures—.

Two good hours riding. Delightful ride through the same plains as yesterday, the same savannahs strewn with rocks and chaparral. The hill of the Dead is coming into focus more than a kilometer to our right.

We go around hills and one round rock; some of these small mountains are completely bare on one side and covered on another with a semblance of jungle.
Here and there, more or less cylindrical rocks; marked by very deep, equidistant holes, giving them the appearance of gear wheels. After crossing the inviting waters of several clear morichales, shaded by groups of majestic Moriches palms (palms that are taller and more spindly than those in Santa Rita, but with short palm fronds), the rocky mass of the Pintado hill stands erect before us. A mountain of a single block of granite that rises perpendicularly to over a hundred meters above the surrounding trees.

Except for some gullies where bushes grow, this edge is smooth, bare, and on this broad vertical plane are colossal, peculiar inscriptions, well proportioned and decorated with an impression and amazing for its audacity and workmanship. When they speak of Cerro Pintado, the Indians claim that their ancestors arrived in curiaras at the tip of this granite block, when the waters covered all the plains and had not yet formed the bed of the Orinoco.

Inscriptions on this granite mountain would go back, then, according to their beliefs, several thousand years ... perhaps before the sinking of the legendary Atlantis?

While Chaffanjon looks for an accessible place to reach the top of the hill he wants to explore, I carefully draw the inscriptions: a snake of at least a hundred meters long flows in waves all along the flat surface, a large lizard or alligator runs over, a huge centipede, a little man, a bird (gallina), a kind of multi-footed table in which there are concentric circles, like food dishes perhaps, and concentric rectangles and ovals. (Excerpt from page 284, September 25)

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Auguste Morisot, Portrait of Popurito, a Guahibo Indian (October 10, 1886)
Auguste Morisot, Portrait of Popurito, a Guahibo Indian (October 10, 1886)

In the morning, Chaffanjon photographs the group of Indian porters along with a Guahibo family who came to trade. Our newly paid carriers, laugh, seem happy. I take advantage of their good mood to ask one of them, Popurito, a very characteristic Guahibo type, to pose for a portrait. I draw a profile and give it to him after having made a tracing of it, he shows it to his comrades who turn it about every way without seeming to understand much; but he, satisfied, willingly allows me a session to paint a frontal view.

His portrait was almost finished when, suddenly, one of his companions burst into the ranch; some words in the Indian language made him jump up and run out with him. I was left with my brushes in the air.

The whole town is upset. We learned that the comrades of my indian model want to kill us. Why? It is a treacherous blow from the merchants. In the hope of not paying the porters and to distract them from their rights, Raimundo Mobna and Castel deemed it very clever to agitate against us, especially against me, asserting that we had performed witchcraft, that Popurito was under my influence and that misfortune would ensue.

Indeed, the misfortune that awaited them was being abused by these hucksters in the form of payment.

But the Indians are not satisfied with this coin, and if a moment before it was a question of killing us, now thanks to the intervention of a civilized Guahibo indian captain who lives with his family on the ranch next to ours, it is the turn of the merchants to fear their anger. This captain speaks very good Spanish. Chaffanjon spoke with him all morning, asking him about the customs and life of the Guahibos.

It was he who served as our interpreter and convinced his compatriots to pose for the photographic apparatus and for me. Made aware of the facts, it did not take much to put things in place, and the peddlers had to pay, not without a rain of insults and violence against two of these unfortunate Indians.

To put the incident behind us, Captain Cordero gave a ball at home. Needless to say, instead of attending in honor, the merchants were excluded. Our Baniva sailors were included in the party. Although the Indian element dominated, the dancing is more Venezuelan than Indian. The few women from the village were there in all their finery; white blouse and white ruffled skirt.

At the sound of the cuatra, the maraca and singing, some couples link arms; but as women are in the minority, pairs of the indian men dance together. Others drink guarapo, fermented liquor, eat cornbread and smoke until the inside of the ranch is a cloud. We didn’t stay long.

Captain Cordero is fully adapted to the level of civilization of the villagers; and even has risen above them, since his ranch is the best kept, the most comfortable, and the best organized of all and he also knows Spanish, while the others can barely speak. (Excerpt from page 291, October 10)