This extraordinary miniature-like gouache is one of the finest works of the Huguenot artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, whose astonishing career and oeuvre have only relatively recently been defined and described (see Hulton, op. cit.). The varied circumstances of Le Moyne’s artistic production must surely be unique in the history of art; although large periods of his career are undocumented, he appears to have worked as a court artist in France, under Charles IX, is known to have travelled to Florida in 1564, as official artist and cartographer to the ill-fated French attempt to establish a colony there, and to have ended his career as a highly regarded botanical artist in Elizabethan London, where his patrons included Sir Walter Raleigh and Lady Mary Sidney. This exquisite gouache embodies and combines in a most original manner three diverse artistic traditions: the first is that of manuscript illumination in Le Moyne’s native France; the second is the recording of exotic and native flora, fauna and cultures, which was the artistic expression of the late 16th-century fascination with exploration and scientific investigation; and the third is the purely aesthetic love of flowers and gardens which was so apparent in Elizabethan court culture.
Le Moyne was born in around 1533, in Dieppe, which was at the time a great centre of cartography and illumination. Nothing is known of his training and earlier career, until early 1564, when he seems to have been instructed by the French King Charles IX to travel as cartographer and official recording artist on an astonishing and ill-fated expedition to establish a Huguenot settlement in Florida, led by the notable mariners Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonnière. After his return to France in early 1566, Le Moyne wrote a remarkable, illustrated description of the voyage and account of the various disasters that befell the party, most of whom perished, some at the hands of the local Indian tribes or the Spanish, and others as a result of mutiny and rebellion within their own ranks. Only fifteen returned alive. This account was published in Frankfurt by Theodor de Bry in 1591, under the title Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provincia Gallis acciderunt; it contains 42 engraved maps and illustrations of the inhabitants of Florida and their customs, and is an extremely important early source of information on these subjects. In 1572, Le Moyne fled to England to avoid the Huguenot massacres, and remained there until his death in 1588. Soon after his arrival in England, he came to the attention of Sir Walter Raleigh, to whom he was probably introduced by his fellow artist John White, who shared similar interests in exploration, and Raleigh remained one of the artist’s most important patrons for the rest of his career. In this cultural milieu, where the interest of the ethnographer and the curiosity of the explorer were entwined with the refined aesthetic sensibility of the Elizabethan period, Le Moyne produced some of his most fascinating works, including the exquisite gouache of the so-called Young Daughter of the Picts (fig. 1, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven).
Prior to the identification of any original drawings by the artist, Le Moyne was only known to a very specialised audience as the writer and the illustrator of the account of Laudonnière’s Florida expedition, and also as the author of an extremely rare book of woodcuts of plants, animals and birds, published at Blackfriars in 1586, under the title La Clef des Champs. In 1900, however, an original gouache on parchment by Le Moyne, relating to the Florida expedition, was discovered; representing The Indian Chief Athore showing Laudonnière the Marker Column set up by Ribault, this drawing is now in the collection of the New York Public Library (see Hulton, op. cit.,vol. I, cat. no.34, illustrated vol. II, pl. 6). The rediscovery of the talent of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues as a botanical artist is also relatively recent. In 1922 Spencer Savage, librarian of the Linnean Society, recognised that a group of 59 watercolours of plants on 33 sheets, originally contained in a small volume with a late 16th-century French brown calf binding and purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1856, were in fact the work of this previously little-known artist (see Spencer Savage, 'The discovery of some of Jacques Le Moyne' s botanical drawings', The Gardeners' Chronicle, 3rd series, vol. LXXI, London 1922, p. 44, and idem, 'Early botanical painters, no.3, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues', ibid., vol. LXIII, 1923, pp.148-49).
These publications by Savage paved the way for further attributions to the artist, notably the album of 50 botanical watercolours acquired by the British Museum at Sotheby’s on 11 December 1961 (lot 177; see Hulton, op.cit., cat. nos. 36-86, illustrated pls. 35-48). The botanical drawings in that album were preceded by a sheet with a manuscript sonnet dated 1585 (in a hand that has been identified as that of the Huguenot writing-master John de Beauchesne). Much more recently, two further, very significant groups of watercolours were brought as anonymous works to Sotheby’s, where they were recognised as major additions to the artist’s oeuvre. The first was a folder of 27 individual sheets, each bearing unrelated studies of several plants, fruits, etc, a few also incorporating the artist’s only known drawings of birds (sold, New York, Sotheby’s, 21 January 2004, lots 29-55). Though exquisitely drawn in Le Moyne’s characteristic technique, and demonstrating a highly sophisticated and artful mise-en-page, those 27 drawings were still very much less formal than any previously known drawings by the artist, and must have been the sort of studies made from life, on which he based his more elaborate compositions. (A comparison between the sheet from that group depicting clove pinks (fig. 2) and the present work illustrates this relationship very well.) The second recent discovery was a superb, complete manuscript florilegium of 80 botanical watercolours, closest in style to the album in the Victoria & Albert Museum, but somewhat more miniature-like in overall impression (sold, New York, Sotheby’s 26 January 2005, lot 46).
But undoubtedly the finest of all the artist’s known works are the handful that are conceived and executed like the present example, seemingly as fully independent, miniature-like works of art, rather than as sheets destined for a florilegium. Eight such miniatures, also on vellum, are in the The Garden Library, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., while the six most spectacular of all are those formerly in the collection of the late Eric Korner (sold, New York, Sotheby’s, 29 January 1997, lots 55-60), of which this is one.
The great manuscript collector Eric Korner acquired his Le Moynes as the work of an anonymous Netherlandish artist of circa 1600. Their authorship was, though, soon recognised by Dr. Rosy Schilling and Mr. Paul Hulton, by comparison with the drawings in the British Museum. Though in some ways similar in conception to the British Museum drawings, and surely also dating from around 1585, the gouaches are, however, far more lavishly executed. Here, as in the others, the support is fine vellum, rather then paper, and the flowers are shown within an elaborate painted border, against a gold background. The artist has also created a highly sophisticated trompe l’oeil effect, playing the delicately painted shadows off against the decorative borders to give the illusion that the viewer is looking at actual plant specimens, enclosed in a small display box. Among Le Moyne’s works this gouache, like its former companions, occupies a unique position, combining aspects of the technique of the Young Daughter of the Picts with the subject-matter of the artist’s three known florilegia, and also the astonishing observation of nature in all its textures and colours, as seen in the informal study sheets.Even taken entirely on its own, without the added significance deriving from these comparisons and from our knowledge of the artist’s extraordinary life and pioneering American travels, this gouache fully justifies Le Moyne’s reputation not only as one of the most exceptional artists to have worked in Elizabethan England, but also as one of the greatest botanical artists of all.
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