A few years ago Miles Harvey hit it big with his nonfiction book The Island of Lost Maps, which not only told a fascinating story about a thief who cut maps from rare old books housed in North America's best libraries, but also led Harvey's readers through the maze of dealers and collectors whose passions are inflamed and whose morals are compromised by their lust for acquisition. It was a fascinating — even a spine-tingling — story elegantly told in an evocative prose that never got in the way.
And the story clearly didn't end. While promoting that book, Harvey found himself in Florida, where someone took him out to Fort Caroline National Memorial, a place he'd never heard of. Fort Caroline memorializes an almost forgotten mid-sixteenth-century colony that was founded by French Protestants in Florida more than half a century before the Puritans got their foothold in Massachusetts. That colony was almost entirely destroyed by the Spanish, who didn't want any French influence in their New World and certainly didn't want any heretical Protestants exercising influence over the native populations. One of the few people who managed to survive the massacre was a young cartographer and painter, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues.
Miles Harvey's new book, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, attempts to rediscover this almost forgotten artist and to re-create his life and capture a sense of his contribution. As Harvey tells us, Le Moyne seemed to have had "a knack for survival." He not only escaped the Spanish attack on the French colony by running off into the Florida forest, but also managed to find his way back to Europe with a few other men in a small and leaking boat. They were starving by the time they washed up on the coast. He survived the brutal and bloody Wars of Religion in France, when most Protestant converts were either massacred or driven from their country. It seems likely that he settled in England and, Harvey convinces us, probable that he moved with the rich and powerful, who used his illustrations of plants as models for their embroideries.
Le Moyne's work and reputation, however, were not quite so lucky. Miles Harvey tells us his own process of discovery and lets us recover this forgotten life much the way he did. Although known by specialists for his narrative of his time in Florida, Le Moyne was remembered mostly as the artist whose paintings or sketches had become the basis for Dutch engravings of native life in the New World. Le Moyne may indeed have created the only record we have of the daily life of native Floridians before they succumbed to the diseases introduced by the Europeans. After his return Le Moyne turned to botanical illustration, almost a century before that art form became popular. Those collections of illustrations have been neglected until the last few years, when the few that have been found are finally demanding fortunes at the big auction houses. After being forgotten for over 400 years, Le Moyne has finally been rediscovered. Most of us will owe that rediscovery to Miles Harvey, who reads from Painter in a Savage Land at Shaman Drum on Wednesday, June 25.
[Review published June 2008]