When Rembrandt Met an Elephant

AMSTERDAM — In Rembrandt’s 1638 etching “Adam and Eve in Paradise,” there are two symbols of excellent and evil. A dragon hovers over the couple as they ponder the poison apple, representing the hazard of temptation. And within the background, somewhat, rotund elephant romps within the daylight, an indication of chastity and beauty. The which means of those symbols, whereas obscure immediately, would have been recognizable in 17th-century Europe.

The dragon Rembrandt drew was a figment of his creativeness. But the elephant seems to be surprisingly true to life. How did Rembrandt, who by no means traveled exterior the Netherlands, know what an elephant seemed like?

A element from Rembrandt’s etching “Adam and Eve in Paradise.” Seventeenth-century viewers would have understood the elephant as an emblem of chastity and beauty.Credit…Julia Gunther for The New York Times

The reply to this query comes within the type of an exhibition, “Hansken, Rembrandt’s Elephant,” on the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition, operating by way of Aug. 29, tells the story of a feminine Asian elephant, taken to the Netherlands within the 17th century, who spent the remainder of her life in Europe and have become a well-liked and well-known spectacle.

This elephant’s life has been a specific obsession of the Dutch naturalist and artwork historian Michiel Roscam Abbing for nearly twenty years. He printed his first slim quantity about Hansken in 2006, however continued to seek for further documentation about her whereabouts and biography for the previous 15 years, leading to a brand new guide and the Rembrandt House present.

What he found is that Hansken had an outsize significance in artwork, standard leisure and science throughout her brief lifetime of about 25 years. She was depicted at the very least thrice by Rembrandt; she traveled to the Baltics by ship, and by foot all the way in which up Denmark and all the way down to Italy; and he or she grew to become the primary Asian elephant to be described by western science.

“It’s a very tragic story, actually, but it’s also fascinating,” mentioned Leonore van Sloten, a curator on the Rembrandt House. “It’s just incredible to think that there is so much information about one animal.”

“She was brought to a world where she didn’t belong,” van Sloten added, “but she became a kind of window onto how life was at that time.”

A 1637 Rembrandt drawing in black chalk, on mortgage to the Rembrandt House from the Albertina Museum in Vienna.Credit…Albertina Museum

Hansken was born in 1630 on the island of Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Company was doing enterprise with the island, and the Netherlands’ ruling governor, Prince Frederick Henry, requested officers to ship him again a younger elephant as a curiosity.

Elephants had been a real rarity in Europe earlier than fashionable instances. “In the 15th century, there was one elephant in Europe,” Roscam Abbing mentioned. “In the 16th century, we know of two or three elephants, and the same is true for the 17th century.”

The journey took about seven months, and Hansken arrived within the Netherlands in 1633. Frederick Henry stored her in his royal stables, together with different unique animals. But, maybe due to the expense and issue of her maintenance, he later gave her to a relative, Count John Maurice.

She modified fingers at the very least twice extra earlier than she was purchased by Cornelis van Groenevelt, an aspiring entertainer, for 20,000 guilders, or the equal of a few half-million dollars immediately. Hansken spent the remainder of her life with van Groenevelt, who rode her from city to city as an attraction.

Van Groenevelt taught the elephant methods — methods to carry a bucket, lie down, wield a sword and fireplace a gun — that had been depicted in prints by the Swiss artist Jeremias Glaser, and in different drawings and etchings by unknown artists, typically as promoting for her exhibits.

One of Hansken’s first stops was in Amsterdam, in 1637, which might be the primary time Rembrandt noticed her. He created an in depth sketch of her that very same 12 months, capturing the textures and folds of her pores and skin and the curvature of her trunk. The drawing in all probability served as a research for the later “Adam and Eve” etching.

“He was interested in the animal as such, and not in the tricks she performed,” Roscam Abbing mentioned. “These other artists focused on her shooting a pistol or carrying a bucket with water, but not Rembrandt. He was interested in capturing the elephant itself.”

Another black chalk drawing by Rembrandt, probably from 1641.Credit…Julia Gunther for The New York Times

Roscam Abbing was in a position to doc Hansken’s arrival in at the very least 136 cities and cities in Europe; she visited Amsterdam 4 instances throughout her life. Rembrandt could have seen her two or three of these instances. Around 1641, he sketched her once more, depicting three variations of her from a number of angles, and in numerous poses: consuming, reclining and strolling.

After years of touring and performing, in all probability with poor diet and care (as a result of Europeans knew virtually nothing about caring for such an animal), Hansken collapsed within the Piazza della Signoria, a serious sq. in Florence, Italy, on Nov. 9, 1655, round age 25.

Her remaining moments had been captured in three drawings by an Italian artist, Stefano della Bella, who occurred to be there.

“It was unclear what happened to her; it was at first thought that she had been poisoned,” van Sloten mentioned. After a medical examination, it was decided that she had died of a fever from an an infection; she had extreme abscesses on her ft.

Van Groenevelt bought Hansken’s physique to the grand duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de’ Medici, who was within the pure sciences. He had her corpse studied extensively, and described in scientific literature. Both her pores and skin and skeleton had been later placed on show within the Uffizi Gallery.

The pores and skin deteriorated and was thrown away within the 19th century, however Hansken’s skeleton survives immediately and is a part of the everlasting assortment of the Museo della Specola on the University of Florence.

The exhibition on the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam is the fruits of a two-decade obsession by the Dutch naturalist and artwork historian Michiel Roscam Abbing.Credit…Julia Gunther for The New York Times

Her cranium is on mortgage to the Rembrandt House as a part of the exhibition.

“There are no bones that you can still see of any other contemporary of Rembrandt’s, not even the bones of Rembrandt himself,” van Sloten mentioned. “So it’s an incredible notion that we can stand next to her.”