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LeMoyne de Morgues, Jacques

Works Of Jacques LeMoyne de Morgues
These two watercolors on vellum are amongst the finest works of the Huguenot artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, whose extraordinary career and oeuvre have only relatively recently been defined and described (see Paul Hulton, The Work of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, A Huguenot Artist in France, Florida, and England, 2 vols., London, 1977).

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 traveled 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. Two of only six documented works by the artist in private hands, these exquisite gouaches embody and combine 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 sixteenth-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.

Until well into the present century, our knowledge of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues was extremely limited, and largely confined to the footnotes of inaccessible ethnographic bibliographies, where he figures as the writer and illustrator of a short history of Laudonniere's attempt in 1564-5 to establish a Huguenot settlement in Florida. In 1922, however, Spencer Savage, librarian of the Linnean Society, made a discovery that opened the way to the subsequent definition of Le Moyne as an artistic personality; he recognized that a group of fifty-nine watercolors of plants contained in a small volume, purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1856 solely for its fine sixteenth-century French binding, were in fact by Le Moyne. Savage's publications relating to this discovery prepared the way for subsequent attribution to the artist of other important groups of drawings and watercolors, which form the core of his known oeuvre.

Le Moyne was born around 1533, in Dieppe. The first thirty years of his life are undocumented, but it seems reasonable to suppose that he trained as an artist in his native town, which was at the time a notable center both for cartography and for illumination. Hutton believed that Le Moyne probably worked at the court of the French King Charles IX, although there is no documentary record to that effect, nor are there any surviving works by the artist dating from before his departure for Florida in 1564. Le Moyne's highly important account of this transatlantic voyage, known today from a Latin edition published in Frankfurt in 1591 under the title 'Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americai provincia Gallis acciderunt,' does, however, clearly indicate that is was the King who instructed the artist to accompany the expedition, headed by the notable mariners Jean Ribault and Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, as official recording artist and cartographer. Although only one original drawing by Le Moyne of an American subject is known today --the depiction of 'Athore showing Laudonniere the Marker Column set up by Ribault,' executed in watercolor and gouache on vellum, now in the New York Public Library -- the 'Brevis narratio,' published by Theodore de Bry as the second volume of his great series of publications on voyages to the New World, contains forty-two engraved illustrations and maps made on the spot by Le Moyne. The text fully describes and analyses these images, and this volume constitutes a major landmark in the literature of the early exploration of the Americas.

Laudonniere's expedition, though resulting in the production of the fascinating Le Moyne/de Bry publication and an important map of the coastal regions of Florida, was ultimately a disaster; the good relations initially established with the Indian tribes inhabiting the territories around the settlement site at St. Johns soon soured, in addition to which various members of the French party became disaffected, and revolted against their leaders. The final coup de grace came when a Spanish force attacked Laudonniere's stronghold at Fort Caroline, and in the end Le Moyne was one of only fifteen or so survivors of the original party to return safely to Europe; having lost their way, they sailed half starved into Swansea Bay in mid-November 1565, and finally reached Paris early in 1566.

The most extravagant and exquisitely wrought of all Le Moyne's floral works are the six miniature-like gouaches from the Korner collection, from which these two works come. Purchased as the work of an anonymous Netherlandish artist of circa 1600, their authorship was recognized by Dr. Rosy Schilling and Mr. Paul Hutton, by comparison with the drawings by Le Moyne in the British Museum. These are generally similar in conception to the watercolors in the British Museum, and must also date from around 1585, but are far more lavishly executed: the support is fine vellum, rather than paper, and each plant is shown within an elaborate painted border, against a gold or intense blue 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 small display boxes.

Together, these drawings fully justify Le Moyne's reputation as one of the most exceptional artists to have worked in Elizabethan England, and his highly important drawings and prints of American subjects increase still further the overall significance of his oeuvre. Although originally purchased together with four other, similar gouaches, these had already disappeared by the time Hutton published his definitive book on Le Moyne, and the present works are two of only six in private hands. Both in their technique and in their overall visual richness, these gouaches are strongly reminiscent of medieval manuscript illuminations, and it is therefore understandable that the should have attracted the attention of the great manuscript collector, the late Mr. Eric Korner, from whose collection they originate.

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