Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Rhinomania

Eric Ormsby at the New York Sun on the catalog for an exhibition of the animal portraits of Jean-Baptiste Oudry:
The snarling "Hyena Attacked by Two Dogs" sports a glossy pelt a princess might covet. The "demoiselle crane," improbably sharing a woodland glade with a toucan and a tufted crane, displays long silky tufts swept back from her head like a flying tiara. These are noble creatures all, the living trophies of a king, and portrayed as such. Oudry often sketched from life at the Royal Menagerie at Versailles, and many of his enchanting sketches, executed in chalk on pale blue paper, are reproduced in the book. The life sketches reveal how hard Oudry worked to catch his subjects on the quick. As a result, his finished portraits ripple with vitality beneath their pomp.

The most astonishing painting of the series, and a masterpiece in its own right, is Oudry's colossal portrait of a rhinoceros. This life-size painting, not shown for some 150 years, is of a celebrated Indian rhino named Clara who arrived in Rotterdam in July 1741. Clara spent much of the next two decades on European tour, creating a wave of "rhinomania" among the fashionable (as Ms. Morton notes, hair ribbons "à la rhinoceros" suddenly became the vogue in Paris). Oudry saw Clara when she made a long stopover in Paris in 1749; as his careful sketches show, he studied every inch of her armor-plated anatomy.

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