The sensitive and highly accomplished, decorative and impressively accurate depictions of flora and fauna by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues are what remains of an equally colorful, adventurous and at times dramatic life. Born in Dieppe, the artist was sent to Florida by the French King Charles IX in 1564 as a cartographer. Le Moyne wrote an account of this expedition, which ended with bloodshed when the Spanish took over the French colony. Soon after his return to France, Le Moyne, a Huguenot, saw himself forced to flee again, this time to England, where Sir Walter Raleigh became his most important patron, and prompted him to produce a book about his experience in the New World, published by Theodor de Bry under the title Brevis narration eorum quae in Florida, Americae provincia Gallis acciderunt (Frankfurt, 1591). Shortly before Le Moyne’s death, La clef des champs, pour trouver plusieurs animaux, tant bestes qu'oyseaux, avec plusieurs fleurs et fruitz, was published in London in 1586, with woodcut illustrations of plants and animals based on his designs.
Not surprisingly, the main collections of his drawings are British– an album with botanical watercolors in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and another one acquired by the British Museum. The drawings contained in the latter album seem to date from the end of Le Moyne’s career, as do two groups of highly finished miniatures – one at the Garden Library Rare Book Collection at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, D.C., and one from the Korner collection, sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 29 January 1997 (lot 55-60). These, together with a handful of loose sheets, form the core of Le Moyne’s œuvre, and have allowed scholars, Paul Hulton in the first place, to reconstruct his life and work.
Based on the watermarks found in the larger group of drawings of which the five drawings offered here were once part (all first sold at Sotheby’s, New York, 21 January 2004, lots 29-55), they seem to date from Le Moyne's earlier years, almost certainly from before his move to England. At least one of them (lot 25) bears an identification of the depicted flower in French – 'pensée', for pansy – making it likely the inscriptions are by the artist himself. Stylistically, they can be compared to the drawings at the Victoria & Albert Museum, thought to date from around 1570, but they unquestionably surpass these in their fresh observation from life and informal presentation, as if they were less made for a public than for the artist’s own pleasure. Their quality and refinement not only delight the eye, but also secure his place as ‘one of the earliest and most gifted botanical painters’ in European art (P. Hulton in The Dictionary of Art, London, 1996, p. 143).