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Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America


Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America

Author:Miles Harvey
Release Date:2008
Publisher:Random House
Genre:Non-Fiction

By Zak M. Salih | Posted 8/6/2008

The various engravings littered throughout Miles Harvey's Painter in a Savage Land are curious bits of European ethnography. In one, a Native American shaman twists and writhes in agony while, around him, French soldiers wait for a divine message. In another, a French adventurer sits on a canoe, oblivious to the Native American behind him with ax raised high. Don't forget, of course, the engraving featuring a group of Native American hunters ramming a wooden pike down the throat of an enormous alligator with curiously human arms and legs.

We owe these and other images to Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the French painter who was the first European artist to visit North America with the explicit purpose of documenting the emerging New World experience. In 1564, Le Moyne was part of a French expedition to the northern coast of Florida. There, he set up shop in Fort Caroline and--when he wasn't struggling to survive through starvation and mutiny--depicted the local Native American tribes and their customs.

Harvey explores the larger context of the European situation in the 16th and early 17th centuries--a tumultuous and fascinating era in which Spain and France were continually at war. They were also racing to beat each other to the New World, a race that Harvey injects with the same tension as that of the 20th-century space race between the Americans and the Soviets. There's plenty of room for more adventure and drama, including pirate raids, brutal massacres (of both Native Americans and European colonists), last-minute escapes, political backstabbing, and fierce religious turmoil.

Interestingly enough, none of Le Moyne's original paintings are known to survive. Instead, his visual interpretation of life in the New World stems from reproductions made by the Flemish-born German engraver Théodore de Bry (based on Le Moyne's memory of his original works). This point raises interesting questions about the reliability of memory and artistic license; after all, who knows what liberties de Bry took with Le Moyne's original representations of events like the first meeting between the French and the local Timucuan tribe.

Harvey addresses some of these issues, but a book-length work devoted to visual reportage of the New World--and its inhabitants--begs for a more detailed analysis about the business of artistic ethnography. How have these images helped determine cultural attitudes toward Native Americans? What role did these images play in larger European colonial missions, which usually ended in bad news for the native population?

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