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It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

In the "Rhino-mania" section of the exhibition Oudry's Painted Menagerie, there is one engraving that means a great deal to me: it is the bizarre image of a human skeleton, standing upright, apparently outdoors, and behind the skeleton there is a rhinoceros grazing contentedly on the grass.

Human Skeleton with Rhinoceros / Wandelaar  
The mysterious image: Human Skeleton with Young Rhinoceros by Jan Wandelaar (Dutch, 1742), from the 1747 book Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani (Tables of Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body) by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus
History and Special Collections Division, the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, the University of California, Los Angeles
 
I first met Clara through this picture and, as with all good relationships, I can remember every detail of that meeting. It was 1998, and I was the odd one out in a medical library—leafing through the rarely used leather-bound volumes on the history of medicine while the medical students around me were reading the latest journals. I wanted to find illustrations for a conference paper I was giving on 18th century anatomical engravings. Then I saw Wandelaar's skeleton and I was hooked. What did it mean?

The book in which I saw the image was written by an eminent medical professor who discussed anomalies in the representation of the skeleton at length, but didn't say a word about the presence of a rhinoceros in the background. If you think about the medium of the picture, you'll quickly realise that engravings—like sculptures—are not media where the artist decides to do something on a whim. You cut, you chisel, and you're committed to that line. So looking at the engraving, I knew that the rhinoceros had to be there for a reason. I decided to find out what that reason was.

The single most useful piece of information that I got from the medical professor's commentary was that the original engraving of the rhinoceros dated from an anatomical textbook published in 1747. Working between electronic databases and a variety of books, I discovered that from the fall of the Roman Empire until the 19th century, only eight live rhinoceroses were seen on European soil. So it struck me that any representation of a rhinoceros in western art prior to the 19th century had to be one of these eight animals. Maybe I could find out which one.

It appeared that the rhinoceros had a name—Clara—and that she was displayed across Europe from 1741 to 1758, at which time she was the longest-lived rhinoceros in captivity. Knowing this, I was beginning to put together a backstory for the engraving—and the solution to my original question, "what does it mean?," became the first chapter of my book Clara's Grand Tour.

If there is one thing I would like exhibition visitors to take away from looking at this single image, it's the fact that asking questions about a work of art—be it an engraving, a sculpture, painting or tapestry—can be the beginning of something extraordinary. All of the objects we see have stories behind them, and those stories are often more incredible than anything a fiction writer would dare to imagine.


Re: It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

Ack! Don't leave us hanging: What DOES it mean? I've wondered the same thing--it's such a weird image!

Getting Public Attention

Anonymous asks me to say more about what the image means. In 'Clara's Grand Tour' I go into quite a lot of detail that I don't have room to reproduce here so (as authors and their publishers are fond of saying) please do check out the book. But the comment 'it's such a weird image' reminds us how effective the picture was/is at capturing viewers' attention. If you had seen this around the city 250 yrs ago and someone had said you could go and see the strange animal in the flesh -- remember that no one alive had ever seen one before -- you'd want to check it out, wouldn't you? It's very effective marketing. How do you 'read' the image?

Re: It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

I had some questions regarding this etching(intaglio) by Jan Wandelaar: 1. Did the artist featured here borrow the image of the rhino from Dürer's etching? a). Did the artist create this image using empirical observation? 2. Regarding the human cadaver- where did the artist get this image- did he borrow it from Vesalius' 'On the Fabric of the Human Body'? 3. What specifically is the distortion the medical doctor is referring to in the human cadaver? Is it the excessive elongation of the proportion? 4. What did type of acid did they use - was it a diluted HCl? 5. What type of ink and paper were used in this intaglio? 6. On the tour of Clara the rhino-did they build a special ship or cart to move her about? 7. What is the difference between an engraving, etching and intaglio? 8. Is mezzotint used in this engraving?

Re: It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

Hello, Charles. Thank you for your questions. I'll try to address each one of them. You ask, did Wandelaar borrow the image of the rhino from Durer? No, most definitely not. As I show in 'Clara's Grand Tour', it's easy to see if an artist has borrowed Durer's image, 'Rhinoceros' from 1515. Durer-inspired animals will have a horn on the end of their nose and a second, entirely fictitious dorsal horn, protruding from between the shoulder blades. Wandelaar's rhino is Clara, drawn from life - so 'yes' to your question of empirical observation, very much in keeping with the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment. Wandelaar did not get the image of the cadaver, or rather, skeleton, from Vesalius - though you are absolutely right that Vesalius's anatomical atlas 'poses' cadavers, often grotesquely so, in a macarbre dance of death. From what I have read about the partnership of the anatomist B.S. Albinus and the engraver Jan Wandelaar, responsible for this engraving of Clara with a skeleton, Albinus obtained an unclaimed male body found frozen outdoors. The unfortunate man's skeleton is used throughout Albinus's anatomical atlas. I suggest in 'Clara's Grand Tour' that Clara was sketched by Wandelaar outdoors - the skeleton observed wired in the artist's/anatomist's studio. I realised a rhino wouldn't fit in an artist's garret, no matter how large! I believe that the distortion of the skeleton referred to concerns anomalies in the bone structure, but the book in which I first encountered a reproduction of this image was maddeningly short on detail or any sense of curiosity on the part of the modern-day anatomy professor. You ask about the type of acid used, ink and paper. My academic background includes fairly extensive training in bibliography, and, when I last examined one of Wandelaar's original engravings from 1742, I would have been able to tell you more about the paper had I examined it from a bibliographer's perspective, noting watermarks etc. and following through issues about the paper's production and use. But last time I examined one of these images in a research library, my concern was with the meaning of the picture, rather than tracing the history of the paper and printshop used etc., so I'm sorry I don't have more information on this. Charissa Bremer-David, the curator of the exhibition, will certainly have a better sense than me of issues to do with the paper quality etc. of the image on display in the 'Clara-mania' section of the exhibition. Re. the difference between engravings, etchings and intaglios - as I type this to you I have a standard bibliography reference book sitting on my desk - Philip Gaskell's 'New Introduction to Bibliography'. I see the sections of the index relating to these distinctions are lengthy and I fear I'd omit some of the finer points if I try to summarise, for example, Gaskell says: 'engravings, see blocks, relief, woodcut: plates, intaglio'. If you are interested in these issues, I'm sure you'd enjoy exploring a book such as Gaskell's which gives an overview of the whole history of transmission of the written word and reproduced image. I don't believe Wandelaar used mezzotint. Finally - did Clara travel in a special cart? Absolutely. You can see an image of this in the exhibition, or read a description in 'Clara's Grand Tour'. I hope you are able to check one or both of these out.  

Re: It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

Your vivid descriptions about Wandelaar's painting modus operandi was very interesting- it reminds me of Soutine's manner of working: hanging a side of decaying beef. I have not had the chance to pick up you book, so I may sound a bit naive for asking these questions. However I shall risk it and ask one more question: what was the scientific name of this rhino....is it the Black /White/Indian/ Sumatran or Javan rhino. This rhino (Clara) looks like a Javan rhino ( Rhinoceros sondaicus). Thanks for the reference to Phillip Gaskell. Fabriano paper and ox-gall ink seemed in fashion during this time, but details are quite scant. Sennefelder seems to be an authority into the history of engravings, but his book seems as rare as the information of the early history of print-making.

Re: It Started with a Picture: How I Discovered Clara

Hello, Charles. Thanks again for the questions - as any author will tell you, questions are really useful to a writer in helping to determine what readers are interested in. And as I wrote 'Clara's Grand Tour', my friends' questions made me realise what additional things I needed to research. I think it's interesting that the image reminds you of some of the 'meatier' still lives - I believe that the 18thC English equine painter, George Stubbs, was regarded with suspicion and disgust by his neighbors due to the horrible smells emanating from his studio - his fine horse studies rely on a knowledge of horse anatomy gained from empirical observation of (decaying) horse cadavers in the artist's studio. You ask about the nomenclature - Clara was an Indian rhino - as were all the rhinos seen in Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire until 1800 - I explain why in the book. Regarding the Latin name - I believe that Linnaeus did not assign a binomial classification to the rhino until 1758 - coincidentally the year of Clara's death, so whilst today we would say she was an example of Rhinoceros unicornis (the Great One Horned Indian Rhinoceros), we need to remember that no one was able to use that Linnaean terminology during her lifetime. (But fortunately, unlike many other species, the Indian rhino has never been reclassified and changed its nomenclature - things get complicated for the modern writer when this happens.) 

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