LE MOYNE, Jacques (c. 1533-1588). A Linnet on a Spray of Barberry (c. 1585-1588). Bodycolor and gold leaf on vellum.
The extraordinary career and oeuvre of the Huguenot artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues—the first European artist to visit the new world—have only relatively recently been defined and described. The varied circumstances of his 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 in the ill-fated French attempt to establish a colony there, and to have ended his career as a celebrated botanical artist in Elizabethan London.
Until well into the present century, our knowledge of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues’s artistic endeavors was extremely limited and largely confined to the footnotes of inaccessible ethnographic bibliographies. 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, the most notable being held by the British Museum and the Oak Spring Library, Virginia.
The present work is most comparable to those by Le Moyne in the British Museum and is part of a group of miniatures on vellum of plants. Luxuriously rendered in bodycolor and goldleaf, it depicts a small finch known as a linnet, nestled on a spray of barberry within an ornate painted frame in olive, grey, and gold. The abundant scarlet fruit and warm gold ground create a sense of intimacy while illuminating the bird, and the vibrant colors recall the linnet’s bright, cheerful song full of fast trills and twitters. Within this sumptuous setting, the small, grey-brown bird is calm and majestic, at home in a brilliant kaleidoscope of nature. The striking design of this remarkable composition proved a favorite of Le Moyne’s, who visited it again in a woodcut illustration of the linnet included in his La Clef des Champs, a pattern book published around the time of the watercolor.
Le Moyne was born around 1533 in Dieppe. The first thirty years of his life are undocumented, but it is reasonable to suppose that he trained as an artist in his native town, which was, at that time, a notable center for cartography and illumination. Between 1564 and 1565 he was engaged in the French expedition to Florida. In his 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, Le Moyne explains how the French King Charles IX instructed him to accompany the expedition, headed by the notable mariners Jean Ribault and Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, as official recording artist and cartographer.
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 native 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, finally reaching Paris in early 1566. Life in France soon became untenable due to the Huguenot massacres and in 1572 Le Moyne fled to England, where he continued to excel in botanical illustration and won the patronage of such notable figures as Lady Mary Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh.