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A Sensational and Sentimental Rhino, Part 1

In the 1740s Clara the rhinoceros sailed from India into the Age of Reason. She arrived in a political world that would soon declare that "all men are created equal" without abolishing slavery or stepping back from the colonizing of Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The West was redefining what it meant to be a human, an individual, and a self in this period. But what, then, did it mean to be an animal in Enlightenment Europe? The images and objects collected in Oudry's Painted Menagerie tell part of that story.

The bioethicist Peter Singer spoke at the Getty this May, finding Oudry's depictions of captive animals "stiff" and without "sympathy," although other artists and philosophers of Oudry's age had taken up the cause of defending animals. Here I'd like to look specifically at how 18th-century ethics related to animals as spectacle—after all, Clara and the many objects that depict her were marketed as entertainments.

Sensational Animals: How to See a Rhinoceros
One way that viewers were encouraged to see Clara was as an exotic wonder or marvel, received with delight, awe, and ignorance (a statuette in the exhibit shows an Indian rhinoceros ridden inexplicably by a Turk). This sensationalism is matched by a scientific scrutiny, as in the print that pairs Clara with an anatomical study of the human skeleton. These seemingly different ways of looking at animals, the sensational and the rational, belong to a single 18th-century continuum of animal entertainments that ranged from hunting, bear baiting, and the keeping of menageries to experimental vivisection and the commissioning of portraits of favorite lap dogs.

Skeleton with Rhinoceros / Wandelaar Turk Riding a Rhinoceros / Kaendler
Left: 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; right: A Turk Riding a Rhinoceros, about 1752, Johann Joachim Kändler for the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, porcelain
Image left: History and Special Collections Division, the Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, the University of California, Los Angeles; image right: Historisches Museum Bern

Artistic, scientific, and sensational ways of looking at animals were more closely related in the 18th century than they are today. The use of animals in 18th-century science was justified by their uses in other entertainments, and science was itself a major entertainment. Amateurs collected microscopes, telescopes, and biological specimens. Experiments, often involving live animals, were enormously popular in the home, as we see in Joseph Wright of Derby's 1768 painting of An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

To understand how it is that all of these different ways of looking at animals were justified by the same ethics of animal display, look at this advertising copy from a pamphlet promoting Clara's live appearances (cited by Glynis Ridley in her wonderful book Clara's Grand Tour:
"...the eye stares in amazement, the mouth must freely admit: God is as almighty as he is wonderful! And this drives us to praise him, who can never be praised enough; especially when one can also add this: God made it so man can take delight in it."

Whether Clara inspired awe, piety, or scientific curiosity, she was sensational in the broadest sense: Clara was created to be perceived, so it was believed, by the human senses.

A Sentimental Rhino
I'll continue this vein of thought in part two of this post, about 18th-century Europeans' hunger for images that portrayed the sentimental life of animals.

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