When Rembrandt Met an Elephant


AMSTERDAM — Rembrandt’s 1638 engraving “Adam and Eve in Paradise” features two symbols of good and evil. While contemplating the forbidden apple, a dragon hovers over the couple and represents the danger of temptation. And in the background, a small round elephant in the sunlight, a sign of chastity and grace. The meaning of these symbols, though uncertain today, was recognizable in 17th century Europe.

The dragon that Rembrandt drew was a figment of his imagination. But the elephant seems surprisingly faithful to life. How did Rembrandt, who had never been outside the Netherlands, knew what an elephant looked like?

The answer to this question comes in the form of an exhibition, “Hansken, Rembrandt’s Elephant” At the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition, which runs until August 29, tells the story of a female Asian elephant who was taken to the Netherlands in the 17th century and spent the rest of her life in Europe, where it became a popular and famous spectacle.

The life of this elephant has been a particular obsession of Dutch naturalist and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing for almost two decades. He published his first thin volume on Hansken in 2006, but continued to seek additional documentation on his whereabouts and biography over the past 15 years, culminating in a new book and Rembrandt House show.

What he discovered was that Hansken played a major role in the arts, popular entertainment, and science during his short life of nearly 25 years. He was portrayed by Rembrandt at least three times; He traveled to the Baltics by ship and on foot as far as Denmark and then to Italy; and became the first Asian elephant described by western science.

“It’s actually a very tragic story, but also fascinating,” said Leonore van Sloten, curator of Rembrandt House. “It’s incredible to think that there is so much information about an animal.”

“He was brought into a world where he didn’t belong,” Van Sloten added, “but it was a kind of window into what life was like back then.”

Hansken was born in 1630 on the island of Ceylon, which is today’s Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Company was doing business with the island, and Prince Frederick Henry, the governing governor of the Netherlands, asked the authorities to return a young elephant out of curiosity.

Elephants were a real rarity in Europe before modern times. Roscam Abbing, “15. “There was an elephant in Europe in the 19th century,” he said. “We know of two or three elephants in the 16th century, and the same goes for the 17th.”

The journey took about seven months, and Hansken arrived in the Netherlands in 1633. Frederick Henry kept him in the royal stables along with other exotic animals. However, perhaps due to the expense and difficulty of her care, she later gave it to a relative, Count John Maurice.

It changed hands at least two more times before being bought by an aspiring entertainer, Cornelis van Groenevelt, for the equivalent of 20,000 guilds, or about half a million dollars today. Hansken spent the rest of his life with van Groenevelt, who drove him from town to town as an attraction.

Van Groenevelt taught elephant tricks such as carrying a bucket, lying down, wielding a sword, and firing a gun, sometimes depicted as advertising, in prints by the Swiss artist Jeremias Glaser and in other drawings and engravings by unknown artists. his shows.

One of Hansken’s first stops was Amsterdam in 1637, and it was probably the first time Rembrandt saw it. That same year he created a detailed sketch of her, capturing the textures and folds of her skin and the curvature of her torso. The drawing probably served as a work for the later “Adam and Eve” engraving.

“He was interested in the animal, not in his tricks,” said Roscam Abbing. “These other artists focused not on Rembrandt, but on shooting pistols or carrying a bucket of water. He was interested in catching the elephant himself.”

Roscam Abbing was able to document Hansken’s arrival in at least 136 cities and towns in Europe; He visited Amsterdam four times in his life. Rembrandt may have seen it two or three times. Around 1641, he redrawn it, depicting three versions of it from various angles and in different poses: eating, lying down, and walking.

After years of touring and performing, possibly due to malnutrition and care (as Europeans knew almost nothing about the care of such an animal), Hansken collapsed on November 9, 1655, in Piazza della Signoria, a large square in Florence, Italy. Around 25 years old.

His final moments were captured in three drawings by Stefano della Bella, an Italian artist who was there.

“It was unclear what had happened to him; at first it was thought he had been poisoned,” van Sloten said. After a medical examination, it was determined that he had died of a fever caused by an infection; he had severe abscesses on his feet.

Van Groenevelt sold Hansken’s body to Ferdinando II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who was interested in natural sciences. He extensively studied his corpse and described it in the scientific literature. Both his skin and skeleton were later displayed in the Uffizi Gallery.

His skin deteriorated and was discarded in the 19th century, but Hansken’s skeleton has survived today and is part of the permanent collection of the Museo della Specola at the University of Florence.

The skull was loaned to the Rembrandt House as part of the exhibition.

“There are still no bones that you can see in any of Rembrandt’s contemporaries, not even Rembrandt’s bones,” Van Sloten said. “So it’s an incredible idea that we can stand by him.”


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