Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Rediscovery of Jacques Le Moyne

On a humid day in July, I drove through Northern Virginia horse country to keep an appointment at the Oak Spring Garden Library in Upperville, Virginia, to view the private botanical art and rare book collection of Mrs. Rachel Mellon. The staff welcomed me warmly and treated me to an experience that I will never forget. Along with a tour of the vast holdings of Mrs. Mellon, who personally designed the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, and who will turn 100 years old next month, I was privileged to hold in my hands the one and only complete edition of the only book published by French Huguenot artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, La Clef des Champs (1586).

La Clef des Champs is a pattern book, designed to provide archetypical samples of various flora, fauna and animals for use in embroidery, tapestry and needlework. It was published at the end of Le Moyne's life and illustrates his remarkable skill at bringing creation to life through watercolor. It was dedicated to his patroness, Lady Mary Sidney, wife of Sir Henry Sidney, confidante of Queen Elizabeth I, and mother of the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney, and begins with a dedicatory epistle and a sonnet dedicated to her, one of several that Le Moyne was known to write. As I leafed through the pages, I was struck by the vividness of the color, still striking after over 400 years, and the attention to detail by this master. They are, as Wilfrid Blunt described, "a labour of love" (The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History, p. 82). Two other manuscripts among the library's holdings attributed to him reaffirmed to me his amazing gift. One was especially noteworthy for his inclusion of roots in his floral works. These represent a significant portion of his extant works. What is especially remarkable is that but for the providence of God, Le Moyne would have been remembered only as one of the first French Huguenot martyrs in America.

Le Moyne was born in 1533 in Dieppe, France, both a prominent seaport and a Huguenot stronghold. Little is known about his early years. Miles Harvey hypothesizes that his father was the Catholic embroiderer and friend of Mary, Queen of Scots, Henry Le Moyne. He must have had connections to the royal court because he was invited to join the 1564 Florida expedition of Lt. René de Laudonnière, serving as the royal cartographer and artist for the voyage. He wrote a narrative of his experiences upon his return home at the personal request of King Charles IX to accompany his remarkable artwork. His account is one of a few invaluable sources which inform us of life at Fort Caroline, the third French Huguenot colony in the Americas (France Antarctique in Brazil (1555-1567) and Charlesfort, South Carolina (1562) were the first), and his artwork serves as the first European depictions of American Indians, the Timucua. His maps also fill an important role in the cartographical history of the United States. He survived the infamous Spanish massacre of Fort Caroline on September 20, 1565, by fleeing the fort and making a return voyage which landed him in England first, then overland to France. It is thought that he lost his artwork when he was forced to flee Fort Caroline suddenly, and then recreated his drawings on the return voyage or sometime thereafter, but Harvey speculates that he perhaps salvaged some of his notes at least.

Some time later, after fleeing France following the 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, he entered the service of Sir Walter Raleigh, and became acquainted with John White, an artist who later famously served as Governor of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, North Carolina. White was influenced artistically by the French Huguenot. Le Moyne died in May 1588, and was buried at Blackfriars Parish. His wife Jeane survived him by several years, but it does not appear that their son did. Towards the end of his life, Le Moyne made the acquaintance of Theodore de Bry, Belgian engraver, who had a vision to promote the exploration and colonization of America. De Bry sought to obtain Le Moyne's paintings for publishing but they were unable to come to terms; after Le Moyne's death, De Bry purchased them from Jeane, and subsquently published engravings based on the artwork of both John White and Jacques Le Moyne, which became sensational best-sellers in his day, and contributed greatly towards the early 17th century European migration to America.

However, Le Moyne himself faded into obscurity as an artist, as did the story of the Fort Caroline colony and its role in the building of America. It was not until the late 19th century that Americans began to realize that French Protestants had preceded English Protestants in settling this nation. It was not until 1900 that Le Moyne's art began to be identified as his, when his illustration of The Indian Chief Athore showing Laudonniere the Marker Column set up by Ribault was positively attributed to him (now in the possession of the New York Public Library), and notice was taken of its importance in art history. In 1922, Spencer Savage, librarian of the Linnean Society, realized that a collection of watercolor plants owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum was in fact the work of Le Moyne. This attribution paved the way for further attributions to Le Moyne, and stirred 20th century interest in the man himself, who lived such an interesting life and created such beautiful art. The world's rediscovery of Jacques Le Moyne has enriched our understanding of art and world history in so many ways.

His art may now be found in a few places around the world: the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; the New York Public Library; the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut; Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC; and the Oak Spring Garden Library in Upperville, Virginia.

Le Moyne himself found pleasure in recreating the artwork of his God, as he wrote in a poem once, calling us to elevate our minds from the creation to the Creator:

Seek no more the colors of a gay Spring
which in the living flowers fade in an hour
here sweet Flora remains in her beauty
and does not lose her distinction through the rigors of time.

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