In 1751, a rhinoceros known as Miss Clara was publicly exhibited at the Venice Carnival, creating a sensation across Europe. She was the subject of poems, paintings, tapestries, medals and sculptures; ladies even styled their hair in the shape of a horn. Pietro Longhi painted this picture around the same time.
In a rather solemn scene, Miss Clara stands in a simple enclosure, languidly munching on hay. She no longer has her horn – the showman holds it in one hand, along with a whip to encourage the animal to move for the spectators, many of whom have masked faces. The background is limited to one wooden wall, but our attention is drawn to different textures: the black lace worn by the woman in the front and the silk dresses of those behind, and the rhino’s rough, dark skin.
In 1751, a rhinoceros known affectionately as Miss Clara was publicly exhibited at the Venice Carnival after an extremely successful European tour; Pietro Longhi painted this picture around the same time. Brought from India by Douwe Mout van der Beer, a captain of the Dutch East India Company, Miss Clara was one of the few rhinos that had been seen in Europe since 1515, when Dürer made his famous woodcut based on drawings of one that had been shown in Lisbon. She created a sensation: poems and songs were written about her, she was the subject of numerous paintings, tapestries, medals and sculptures, and ladies even styled their hair in the shape of a horn. In 1758 Miss Clara was taken to London, where she died soon after.
Sadly, in this painting you can see that Miss Clara’s horn has been removed. The showman holds it along with a whip, perhaps used to encourage the animal to move about. Many of the spectators have masked faces to conceal their identity and social status, as was customary during the Carnival. Longhi has captured a glimpse of the city’s amusements during the festival, which often included exotic animals such as lions and elephants, but this is actually a rather sombre scene: Miss Clara stands in a simple enclosure, languidly munching on hay. The background is limited to one wooden wall and raised seating. Our attention is drawn to different textures, like the black lace worn by the doll-like woman in the front row and the silk dresses of those further back, as well as the rhino’s rough, dark skin.
Longhi painted an earlier version of this scene, now in the Ca' Rezzonico in Venice, for the Venetian nobleman Giovanni Grimaldi. Our work was commissioned not long after by his contemporary, Girolamo Mocenigo. During Clara’s visit to Paris two years later, Jean-Baptiste Oudry painted a life-size portrait of her (Staatliches Museum, Berlin), looking poised and regal in front of a mountainous landscape, her hide shiny and anatomy painted with great precision.
Longhi belonged to a family of artists in Venice, and was best known for his small-scale paintings of everyday life during the 1740s and 1750s. The National Gallery owns several of his witty scenes of daily life, including A Fortune Teller in Venice and A Lady receiving a Cavalier.
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