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A Sensational and Sentimental Rhino, Part 2

In part one of this post I talked about animals as exotic spectacle and the ethics of display. But what did 18th-century audiences think about the sentimental life of these animals being offered for their entertainment?

Sentimental Animals: How to Be a Rhino
Paintings like An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump or the one that shows Clara in Venice in 1751 (details shown below) are as much about the audience's reactions as they are about the animal who serves as the central entertainment.

Rhinoceros / Circle of Pietro Longhi Dog's Head / Circle of Pietro Longhi
Details from Rhinoceros by an artist in the circle of Pietro Longhi, about 1751, oil on canvas
Banca Intesa Collection, Vicenza

According to what we call the "Cult of Sensibility," 18th-century individuals nurtured and catalogued their own responses to new experiences. To be a cultivated person also meant to be generally sensitive, including to the treatment of animals. A popular genre of painting visualized the close sentimental connection between people and pets, such as A Girl with a Dead Canary by Jean-Baptiste Greuze.

During the 1600s, many had subscribed to Renee Descartes's view that animals were machines incapable of feeling even physical pain. But in an 18th-century climate newly obsessed with the development of the individual, some people wanted to grant sensation, reason, self-consciousness, sentiment, and emotion to animals as well.

Demonstrating sensitivity in animals proved unpleasant for the subjects. The Swiss physiologist Albrecht von Haller exposed animals to painful stimuli to test their reactions. As proof of sentiment in animals Joseph Addison narrated for the readers of The Spectator in 1711 an experiment (of which he disapproved) in which a pregnant dog was vivisected and her puppy removed: "On the Removal, she kept her Eye fixt on it, and began a wailing sort of Cry, which seemed rather to proceed from the Loss of her young one, than the Sense of her own Torments."

Dogs and cats, the animals most sentimentalized in the visual arts, were also the ones most commonly used in experiments. The ethics of animal treatment and display were clearly complex and in flux in the 18th century.

You'll have to look closely at Oudry's animal portraits, like the painting of Clara or his Study of a Dog's Head, to decide for yourself if he grants them any sensitivity or self-consciousness.

But keep in mind what we've just seen of the display of animals in the 18th century as sensational and exotic, as scientific subjects, and as sentimental beings. Oudry's Clara appears to have a temperament that is gentle, despite her enormous physical presence, and an attentiveness (in her eye and twitching ears) to her viewers outside the painting. Eighteenth-century audiences prized images that stimulated a variety of emotional and rational responses and that allowed them to approach the alien sentimental life of an animal.
Rhinoceros / Oudry Dog's Head / Oudry
Left: Rhinoceros (detail), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, 1749, oil on canvas; right: Study of a Dog's Head (detail), Jean-Baptiste Oudry, about 1740, black and white chalk on faded blue paper
Both images: Staatliches Museum Schwerin

By the way, rhinoceroses weren't the only imports from India in the 18th century; Indian ethics influenced new thinking in Britain on the treatment of animals. If you're interested in this story, see Tristram Stuart's new book, The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times.



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