Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clara the Celebrity Rhino

There were many celebrated animals wowing the people of the Enlightenment.  There was the pig that was smarter than a 5th grader, the Duke's of Richmond's moose, the hermaphrodite horse (which I can't find any info on past the fact that he/she was compared to Horace Walpole), and so on and so forth.  But perhaps one of the larger of the animal celebrities was Clara the Rhinoceros.

Clara's humble beginnings come straight out of a Disney movie.  Her mother was killed when Clara was a month old and somehow the Rhino tot ended up in the hands of the director for the Dutch East India Company, Jan Albert Sichterman. Sichterman raised Clara like any pet; she lived indoors with him and would eat her food off a plate.  But as we all know Rhinoceroses tend to outgrow our humble human houses, and if they don't I am sure their poop does.  Sichterman sold his large pet to a Captain van der Meer, who had aspirations to show Clara off to the world.

Now Europe had a bit of a history with attempting to bring Rhinos to their continent and them dying on the way.  Van der Meer was determined to succeed.  On her sea voyage Clara was given an abundance of vegetables and had her skin oiled daily so it would not dry out.  Although, I dare to ponder on the fact that rhinoceroses comes from dry climates and probably don't need to be slathered in fish oil (Clara must have smelled bad).

Van de meer's methods worked and Clara arrived safely in the Netherlands.  She then was exhibited around the country and became so popular that van der Maar gave up his seafaring career to exhibit her.  Clara then went on a rockstar tour across Europe.  Not only did she meet some of the illustrious rulers of Europe; Marie-Theresa of Austria, Frederick II of Prussia, King Louis XV; but was also painted by the great artists of the time.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry who was a court dog painter who painted a life-size portrait of Clara (above).  Oudry's newly-restored depiction shows how Clara continued to have her skin oiled-down for ultimate rhinoceros sheen; it also displays a rather sharp horn.  I have a feeling Oudry embellished the pointy-ness of the horn.

The most accurate portrayal in my opinion would be Clara's appearance in a German anatomy book.

When Clara's rock and roll tour landed in Italy Pietro Longhi was enchanted by the rhino and featured her in multiple works.  By that time Clara's horn was gone although we don't know if it was from her rubbing it off due to being closely confined or if it was cut off.  If the later, it would fetch quite a price considering there were plenty of Clara souvenirs during this Rhino-mania. 

The rock tour ended in London in 1758 when Clara died at the age of twenty.  After over fifteen years on the road, the rhino that enchanted Europe met her end thousands of miles away from her beginnings in India.


  1. Thank you for the post! I heard a paper on Clara at a recent conference and wanted to hear more.

  2. I would have loved to have heard about Clara at a conference!

  3. I can just hear the spectators in the second pic ooohing and aaahing. Fantastic! Thanks for sharing this.

  4. At least Clara lasted longer than Pocahontas.

  5. I keep thinking that the rhino and skeleton picture would look amazing on an All Saints T shirt. ;)