The Rhinocerous in the History of Art

On the 20th of May 1515, news of a remarkable sight was spreading across Europe: for the first time in over 1000 years, an Indian rhinoceros had been brought to Europe. In September of 2020, students in my art class made their own drawings of a rhinoceros. Totally unrelated? Not quite.

As my students learned, that event triggered the first-ever woodcut print of a rhino. A fascinating link, and one that can tell us so much about art itself.

In this blog I’m looking at perception and going into more detail about rhinos in art history. By incorporating some mini-lessons on the history of famous painters and paintings, I hope to both educate and inspire.

The history of an idea in art isn’t just an interesting fact though – it’s something that can help children and adults use art for self-discovery and inspiration.

I’m sure we’ve all, whether it’s our own drawing or someone else’s, taken a look at something and thought to ourselves ’that looks nothing like the real thing’. Well, that’s not always the enduring factor.

Take the woodcut I was talking about earlier in this post – after the rhinoceros had caught the imagination of artists, naturalists, and the general public, there were soon a number of imitations based on firsthand reports. And while some recreated the animal relatively accurately, one of the most prominent artists and naturalists of the day, famed for his accuracy, Albert Duhrer’s version was….well why not take a look for yourself. That’s right, he created something that looks more like an armoured dinosaur than a rhinoceros. Surely, no one remembers Duhrer’s attempt?

Not quite. At the time, most people had understandably never seen, and were never likely to see a Rhinoceros.

In fact, most of the artists were working from the words of a German printer living in Lisbon, Valentin Ferdinand, who had seen the animal and sent both a letter and a drawing of the animal to the merchant community of Nuremberg.

Despite working from the same source, Durher’s version still stands apart. Taking the accuracy he was famed for, Duhrer was not only rigorous in his reliance on descriptions from classical texts, he also aimed to capture the emotional core of the creature. And in doing so, whilst not remotely capturing the reality of what a rhinoceros looked like, he found footing by imitating people’s idea of what a rhinoceros should or would be, ensuring that his painting remained in the public consciousness.

What’s more, Durher’s version had an artistry that the other’s could not match, which perhaps explains why it would go on to inspire one of the most famous artists of all time. After seeing a version of the woodcut in his childhood home, Salvador Dali would have a career long fascination with the rhinoceros featuring it in a number of his works.

The biggest takeaway from this is that when you’re teaching or making art it’s not always about accuracy or perfection, it’s about honouring your vision and capturing something essential about your subject – and that’s something anyone can do!

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