Once upon a time botanical art was all the rage. In fact, Frenchman Jacques Le Moyne des Morgues was one of the first European artists to ever visit the New World with the distinct task of recording the flora and fauna he discovered along the way. His sketches may have had a tragic fate but his depictions of plants and wildlife along Southeast coast of North America are unmatched, both in beauty and historical value. It is about these that I’d like to tell you more about.
Botanical illustration has been around for millennia. Scientists used them as a way to record details of different plant species, frequently in beautiful watercolor/gouche paintings. Although these illustrations are scientifically accurate and have started as a study tool, they often carry an artistic component that is hard to deny. Their beauty has made them popular in home décor as a way to invoke the beauty of natural elements indoors. I love botanical prints and in this day and age you can find many different styles – black and white, minimal contours, colorful reproductions of famed botanical expeditions… But by far, some of the most valuable and among my favorite, are those created by Jacques Le Moyne and reproduced by Theodore de Bry. They are not only breathtaking in color and detail but are also 500 years old!!! Who said age comes before beauty, when clearly they go hand in hand!
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (1533-1588), illustrator and cartographer, accompanied Rene de Laudonniere’s ill-fated attempt to colonize Florida in 1564. The first European artist to reach Florida, Le Moyne charted the St. John’s Bluff region, now Jacksonville, and sketched scenes from the lives of the Timucuan Indians. Le Moyne lost most of his work during the 1565 Spanish attack on Fort Caroline. One of the few French survivors returning to France in 1566, he redrew his sketches and recounted his Florida experience to the King of France, Charles IX. Le Moyne’s illustrations and narrative are of vital historical importance, being some of the earliest visual evidence to accompany a narrative of the sixteenth-century Florida expeditions.
Despite the historical significance, controversy surrounds Le Moyne’s work. Original details may have been lost, or scenes may have been embellished, since Le Moyne redrew most of his images from memory. In 1591, Theodor de Bry made 42 engravings from Le Moyne’s drawings compiling these images and Le Moyne’s narrative into a book. Scholars today question the authenticity of the engravings. Many details do not match Indian culture artists later sketched in the New World, fauna indigenous to Florida or artifacts archaeologists found in regional excavations suggesting either Le Moyne or de Bry had incorporated details known from other parts of the world such as South America. Only one of Le Moyne’s original paintings, in the New York Public Library, survives today. This remaining piece is also in question as scholars debate whether this painting is a Le Moyne original or also a replica. (Valerie Lanham, University of South Florida St. Petersburg)
Today there are six documented works by the artist in private hands, exquisite gouaches which 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. Le Moyne’s work represents a transition from the medieval focus on the religious symbolism of plants in art to a Renaissance emphasis on scientific inquiry and beauty when creating botanical illustration.