Europe’s first images of the New World

Times Staff Writer

Glimpsed IN history’s rearview mirror, events seem to follow one upon the other with fluid inevitability. Thus, the 516-year arc from Columbus’ first wondering footfall on the shore of the New World to this morning’s traffic jam on the 405 appears seamless and foreordained.

Those who find the view from that vantage point unconvincing also will find much to admire in Miles Harvey’s engaging new book, “Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America” -- not least its illuminating portrait of just how halting, helter-skelter and contingent a process the early exploration of the New World really was. Eight years ago, Harvey published a well-received exploration of the intersection of graphic representation and history, “The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime.” In this new work, his subject is the artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a mysterious figure whose astonishingly adventurous life included service with a disastrous attempt to plant a colony of French Huguenots on the Florida coast, near what’s now Jacksonville.

Harvey has set himself quite a challenge, because while Le Moyne’s significance is clear, much that’s important about him is unknown and unknowable. He left no self-portrait, for example, so it’s impossible to conjure a mental image of the approximately 30-year-old artist who set out with 300 other, mainly Protestant French soldiers and sailors from the Norman port of Le Havre on April 22, 1564. One of the strengths of this account is that, while the author does not hesitate to speculate about key elements in Le Moyne’s life, he’s modest about what he asserts based on that conjecture and he’s clear regarding the evidence on which he relies.

Through the mists of time


It’s apparent, for example, that the artist was formally trained, and he appears to have had royal connections, possibly gained through a relative who was chief embroiderer to Mary Queen of Scots while she reigned alongside the short-lived Charles IX of France. The younger Le Moyne may have supplied his relative -- and, therefore, the queen -- with accurate floral patterns for embroidery. While Le Moyne’s relations were Catholic, he was a Calvinist, and his family may have wanted him out of the country following the first of the religious wars that would culminate in the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Service with a voyage of exploration was a kind of cutting-edge option, since the French and Dutch had begun a lucrative new trade in engravings of exotic peoples, places and creatures from around the world. Professional artists were sent out with the explorers and used the new medium of watercolor to record what they saw for future publication, often supplemented by prose accounts. Le Moyne produced both in Florida, but his original watercolors all are lost. Indeed, none may have survived the Spanish sack of Fort Caroline, as the French called their settlement. Thus, what Le Moyne ultimately published may have been the product of memory -- a recollection further attenuated by changes made to his work by the Dutch engraver who reproduced it.

What Harvey points out convincingly is that Le Moyne was a tough customer for a painter -- a good hand with an arquebus, the musket’s unwieldy firelock predecessor, who survived combat with the local Timucua Indians and the brutal Spanish attack that destroyed Fort Caroline and set the handful of survivors on a desperate sea voyage back to France.

Even under the best of conditions, life in the Florida colony was a mess. Like many early European expeditions, it consisted of gentlemen and men at arms, who considered physical labor -- even for food -- beneath their station. Relations with the locals, initially good, quickly eroded, partly through French meddling in their intramural warfare, partly because of the newcomers’ constant demands for food, gold and silver. Mutiny and desertion were constants.


John Sparke, a merchant and writer who was with the great English freebooter John Hawkins when he paid a three-day visit to the starving -- and rapidly dissolving -- French outpost late in 1564, was “shocked to find the French in such a wretched state, but he could find no one to blame but the colonists themselves.” The local soil, he noted, was fertile, “but they, being soldiers, desired to live by the sweat of other men’s brows” and refused to plant gardens. “Not only did the settlers fail to grow their own crops, but they ‘would not take the pains so much as to fish the river before their doors, but would have all things put in their mouths.’ ”

History in motion

Le Moyne was the first artist to accompany an expedition to North America and paid close attention to the Timucua Indians’ customs and rituals. Harvey scatters the resulting engravings throughout the text, using them as an occasion for the concise but fascinating digressions that make “Painter in a Savage Land” such a pleasure to read. The well-managed digression, in fact, is the key to taking a relatively small-scale historical tale, like Le Moyne’s, and giving it the rich context that makes for both intelligible history and enjoyable reading.

For example, in the midst of his account of the English captain Hawkins’ visit to Fort Caroline, Harvey places a Le Moyne engraving of a Timucuan puffing “on a long pipe, thick smoke emerging from his parted lips. Next to him, a woman holds a basket of ‘a certain plant, whose name escapes me, but which the Brazilians call petum and the Spaniards tabaco.’ ”


Hawkins was not simply the leading English mariner in an era of formidable seamen but the originator of the English slave trade. When he arrived in Florida, he’d just dealt 400 African captives to the Spanish and was in a position to sell one of his smaller, surplus ships to the French, who were desperate to leave. Sparke noted that all the French had picked up the Indians’ tobacco smoking habit. Brief as their stay was, so did some of the English, who introduced it to their countrymen on their return.

Within a couple of decades, “English pipe smoking, or ‘dry drinking,’ as it was called, had grown from a novelty into a national obsession.” The desire to secure an English-owned source of tobacco production played a pivotal role in the establishment of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown in Virginia, and the cultivation of tobacco there provided the impetus for the introduction of African slaves into North America.

Harvey concludes: “And so it was that slavery took root in North America thanks to tobacco -- both industries in a curious way, tracing their histories back to John Hawkins.”

Like many French Huguenots, Le Moyne fled the resumption of France’s wars of religion, this time to England. There he found employment with Sir Walter Raleigh, who’d set up a kind of exploration think tank to plan England’s North American colonies. His happiest connection, though, was with Lady Mary Sidney. Once a celebrated beauty and lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I, she had stayed to nurse her queen through smallpox. Elizabeth recovered with only a few scars; Sidney contracted the disease from her royal patient and was disfigured for life. She withdrew from court and gave herself over to embroidery. Le Moyne provided her with a pattern book, “La Clef des Champs” (“Key to the Meadows”).


It was his last known publication, and three copies survive. Before that, however, Le Moyne did produce something entirely new -- a “florilegia,” a bound collection of flower paintings meant to be enjoyed solely for its beauty.

Miles Harvey has done something similar in “Painter in a Savage Land,” though here the beauty invoked is memory.