- The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicolas: The Natural History of the New World/Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales ed. by François-Marc Gagnon
Graphic representations of colonial American nature, settlements, and scenery are frustratingly few. They were in most cases published in Europe by printers and engravers who were unfamiliar with the material they worked on, and the engravings were frequently recycled, adapted, and pirated. Illustrations often cannot be reliably attributed to the authors of the books they appeared in. Some include incongruous details such as the palm trees in the depiction of Samuel de Champlain’s battle with Algonquian allies against Mohawk foes in 1609, on the shores of the lake now named for him.
As a result, scholars in our field rely on a fairly small corpus of images to supplement their analyses of literary and documentary texts. The paintings by John White from the Roanoke expeditions, the numerous engravings by Theodore deBry and his atelier working from White’s paintings, the woodcuts in Hans Staden’s narratives, and other illustrations of explorers of sixteenth-century America have been reprinted and interpreted many, many times. Although there certainly are new things to learn about and new ways to look at the work of White and the deBrys, new or unfamiliar images would be welcomed by scholars in our field.
In this large and handsome volume and out of the careful scholarship behind it, Louis Nicolas emerges as one of the most accomplished natural historians of early America, and among the earliest European colonists to create a comprehensive textual and graphic account of America’s plants, quadrupeds, birds, and fish, as well as portraits of some of its native people. Nicolas created the drawings known as the Codex Canadensis. He worked in pen and ink, in the field in the Saint Lawrence Valley and Great Lakes in the 1660s and 1670s, and although he does not hold a candle to [End Page 586] his contemporaries Claude Lorrain or Charles LeBrun, he had a skillful hand for shadows, textures, and cross-hatching, and seemed particularly fond of long thin straight objects such as paddles, pipestems, or the horn of a unicorn.
It was common practice for colonial authors, whether men of the sword, men of the cloth, or promoters of settlement schemes, to include natural history and ethnography alongside colonial history and their personal narratives of travel and exploration. But rarely did these authors demonstrate first-class talent for observation in the field and for drawing and writing. For example, Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny, whose 1747 manuscript narrative I edited, obligingly wrote a long section on the native people, plants, animals, and fish of Louisiana, and illustrated it with water-color paintings of a crocodile, a rattlesnake, and a bison. To put it kindly, however, his paintings display the enthusiasm of a naif amateur, not the talent of a trained artist. To take another example, the Drake manuscript at the Pierpont Morgan library is similar in scale and style to the Codex Canadensis and has superb color drawings, but its artist remains unknown, and the manuscript includes only brief caption texts, not an extended narrative such as Louis Nicolas provided in his Histoire naturelle des Indes occidentales.
In this book we see Nicolas’s depictions of humans, animals, plants, canoes, ships, weapons, dwellings, and iconic body art, and we have his text commenting on nearly all the images. Thus we can see where his experience, talents, interests, and prejudices lay. With help from the apparatus by François-Marc Gagnon, one of the most prominent art historians in Canada, the reader learns which images Nicolas copied and which came direct from the field, notably from Chequamegon on Lake Superior where he was a missionary in the early 1670s. Nicolas most likely had no formal...