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Paintings of flowers, butterflies, and insects

Paintings of flowers, butterflies, and insects

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Paintings of Flowers, Butterflies, and Insects. Late 16th century.

This book is a very early forerunner of Merian's style of botanical illustration.  Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues chronicled the natural history of Florida while accompanying the ill-fated colonial expedition of French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere (ca. 1529-1574).  While none of the original paintings that he created during his journey survive, engravings of his work were used to illustrate the Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt (1591).

Le Moyne’s other original works are found in a number of collections, including the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Oak Spring Garden Library.  The small book in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection contains eight images of common fruits, flowers, butterflies, and insects painted on a gold ground within black frame borders on vellum.  These motifs could have a religious significance.  Flowers that are often found in Books of Hours (a type of late medieval prayer book) include roses, carnations, and violets, all symbols of the Virgin Mary.  Violets are also an attribute of Jesus, while butterflies are associated with the Resurrection.  The images can be characterized as an intermediate step between the borders of early sixteenth-century French and Flemish illuminated manuscripts in which flowers function as symbols; the seventeenth-century botanical studies of Nicolas Robert; and the Dutch and Flemish flower painters who constructed works from drawings and studies. Although the flowers portrayed are accurate renderings of simple indigenous species, they are elegant in their execution.  Le Moyne’s artistic style, which employs the device of having several flowers coming out of the frame into the viewer’s space, the gold ground, and the animated quality of the insects and butterflies combine to form spectacular works of art, the swan song of the tradition of manuscript illumination.

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