Clara, the 18th-Century Rhinoceros Who Became a Sensation
For over two centuries, Europeans pictured the rhinoceros as more of a battering ram than an animal. The misconceptions are somewhat understandable, since there were no living rhinos around, and the widely distributed 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer largely defined the beast for the European imagination. The print, created from a written description only, showed a rhinoceros in profile, seemingly dressed for war and with a misplaced horn on its back. A German inscription atop the work was based on an account by first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder, and claimed that the "fast, impetuous, and cunning" rhinoceros was "the mortal enemy of the elephant."
Everything changed in July of 1741, when a real rhinoceros arrived in Rotterdam. Miss Clara, as she was eventually nicknamed, was an Indian rhinoceros who caused almost two decades of "rhinomania" as she traveled throughout Europe. She delighted nobles in the great European courts, and wowed ordinary citizens in small towns. In France, Italy, Germany, England, Switzerland, and Austria, artists captured her tough skin and gentle eyes; she was immortalized in clocks and commemorative medals; poets wrote verses to her, and musicians composed songs. In Paris, women styled their hair à la rhinocéros, with ribbons or feathers simulating a horn atop their heads. Everywhere she went, Clara caused a sensation.
Her journey began in 1738, when her mother was killed in India. As a baby, she became a house pet of Jan Albert Sichtermann, a director of the Dutch East India Company, at his estate near modern-day Kolkata, until she got a bit big for such domesticity [PDF]. In the 2005 book Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Glynis Ridley describes how Dutch sea captain Douwemout Van der Meer acquired Clara in 1740. Following a long voyage from India to the Netherlands, Van der Meer kept her alive for years beyond the then-average lifespan for captive rhinoceroses (despite feeding her a diet that included large quantities of beer). He became her caretaker, manager, and tireless hype man.
“Had Van der Meer left behind a journal, generations of readers could have looked over his shoulder as he wrestled with the practicalities of owning and transporting the heaviest land animal on the planet,” Ridley writes in Clara’s Grand Tour. “The nature of his problems can be gauged, however, from an account of the attempted transportation of a rhinoceros within France in 1770. For a single journey transporting a male rhinoceros from Lorient to Versailles, the French government paid for two days of work by carpenters, 36 by locksmiths, 57 by blacksmiths and 72 by a team of wheelwrights. (Despite all this, the resulting wagon still collapsed en route and many more man hours were required to get the male rhinoceros back on the road.)”
In other words, most rhinos traveling Europe did not fare well. The animal on which Dürer based his woodcut drowned in a 1516 shipwreck off the Italian coast; a rhinoceros brought to Lisbon around 1579 lived only a few years. By some reports, its eyes were gouged out after it tipped a carriage of royal guests in Madrid. Yet Van der Meer accounted for rest in Clara’s busy schedule, and although he was entrepreneurial with the media blitz of posters that preceded each of her stops, he took the utmost care with her travel. For instance, she was never led by a ring in her nose, as was long practiced with large animals like bulls, and she was transported from city to city in a huge wooden coach pulled by eight horses.
From bronze sculptures to porcelain curios, Clara was celebrated in art at a level usually reserved for royalty. In a life-size 1749 portrait by French artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry, she stands regally in a rustic landscape; a 1747 etching (above) presents her against a sprawling background where dark-skinned figures, palm trees, and a scene of a rhino goring an elephant all reinforce her exoticism. A 1751 painting by Pietro Longhi, now at the National Gallery in London, has a crowd of masked Venetians watching Clara. One woman wears a Moretta mask, known as a “mute mask” as it has no mouth, and seems to be regarding the viewer instead of this celebrity creature, perhaps asking who is being exhibited.
Clara even appeared in an influential 18th-century anatomical atlas: Bernhard Siegfried Albinus’s 1747 Tabulae Sceleti et musculorum corporis humani. Its illustrator, Jan Wandelaar, was among the earliest artists to depict Clara, and thus one of the first to represent an anatomically correct rhinoceros. In two engravings, she appears behind flayed corpses, both the rhinoceros and the dissected humans representing the cutting edge of anatomical understanding.
Clara died in April 1758 in London, 20 years after being captured in India. While wild rhinos often live into their thirties, and captive ones a bit longer, Clara had lived far longer, and traveled much farther, than was usual for an exotic animal in the 18th century. Oddly, with all her fame, there’s no clear cause of death, or record of what became of her remains. There are also no reports of public mourning for this international star. Yet through the surviving Clara memorabilia and art, we can still witness how she radically transformed Europe’s idea of what a rhinoceros could be.