Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox. Lo now, his strength is in his loins, and his force is in the navel of his belly. He moveth his tail like a cedar: the sinews of his stones are wrapped together. His bones are as strong pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron. —Job 40:15-18
A poster advertising the exhibition of the eponymous rhinoceros in Glynis Ridley’s entertaining cultural history, Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels With a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, tantalized the German public with this appeal: “All animal lovers in Leipzig are informed of the arrival of a living rhinoceros, which many believe to be the Behemoth of the Book of Job…” She wasn’t, of course, but to the good citizens of Leipzig she was no doubt even bigger. Indeed, perhaps excepting the biblical beast, Clara has to be the most famous rhinoceros in history.
Clara arrived in Europe in 1741, in the care of a Dutch sea captain named Douwemout Van der Meer. He exhibited her in venues across the continent until 1758, when she died in London. A partial itinerary survives in the form of handbills, broadsides, and newspaper accounts; Ridley, a teacher of 18th-century studies at the University of Louisville, does an admirable job of filling in the gaps in the historical record, tracing literary allusions to the tour and changes in the popular image of the rhinoceros to triangulate both Clara’s location and her considerable impact on the culture.
Ridley’s book is by necessity held together by speculation—informed speculation, but speculation nonetheless. This is not a quibble as much as it is a warning to the reader to expect whole causal chains to begin with such apologetic clauses as “There may seem to have been.” As Ridley herself confesses, rather late in the book, “Confusion often abounds in the written record.”
It is known that Van der Meer’s ship arrived at Rotterdam on July 22, 1741, bearing his unexpected cargo—a young female rhinoceros purchased from a director of the Dutch East India Company in Assam, India. She had been captured at only a few months of age, when her mother was killed by a party of hunters, and subsequently raised as a pet. Though it is not known how old Clara was when she was purchased by Van der Meer, Ridley thinks she was sold because her owner “must have been aware that Clara, through no fault of her own, would soon become a liability indoors.” She liked beer and tobacco and oranges. She was, it would be later recorded, tame enough to “lick a young man’s face who kept it.”
How exactly Van der Meer transported an adult rhinoceros across the primitive roads of 18th-century Europe is largely a matter of conjecture. An account of attempts to haul another rhino from Lorient to Versailles in 1770 gives some idea of the challenges facing the captain. Ridley learned that in that effort, “the French government paid for two days of work by carpenters, thirty-six by locksmiths, fifty-seven by blacksmiths and seventy-two by a team of wheelwrights.” (Despite all their work, the transport built for the rhino collapsed under its own weight.) From a single picture, Ridley describes Clara’s vehicle as a long, enclosed transport, with wheels of “extraordinary size,” built lower to the ground than was normal for a carriage at the time. The design may have involved business considerations as well as a taxing problem of engineering. “The only visible window appears mean: more a reflection, perhaps, of Van der Meer’s wish to avoid giving free viewings of Clara than a source of adequate light and ventilation.”
Much of the book is devoted to Clara’s effect on the collective concept of the rhinoceros. When Clara arrived on the continent, few Europeans could summon a mental image of the animal. As Ridley discovered, “From the third to the sixteenth centuries ad, no rhinoceros was seen on European soil.” Combing through European archives and art collections, Ridley was able to trace the popular image of the animal to a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer from 1515. Dürer, known for precision and detail as a draftsman, had of course never laid eyes on a rhino, so his rendering is a little fanciful, to say the least: The animal appears to be armor-plated, with a raised, crenellated spine down its hindquarters and a second horn rising up from its shoulder.
Ridley painstakingly details the shift in the European mind from Dürer’s vision to that of artists who were allowed to sit with Clara at various points on her itinerary. Clara was a compliant subject, happy to munch on hay while her picture was made by such well-known painters as Pietro Longhi and Jean-Baptiste Oudry, as well as anonymous sketch artists. Her likeness was engraved on paper, cast in bronze, and crafted in porcelain. What emerges from Ridley’s methodical plunge into the sometimes dense thicket of 18th-century bric-a-brac is evidence of a European popular culture beginning to emerge—pulled together, in part, by the power of the printed image. In this context, Clara, Ridley posits, may have been one of the world’s first true media sensations; she was, at least, “the archetypal rhinoceros.”
At the same time, Europe was attempting to understand itself through experimental and observational science. Knowledge of natural history was becoming de rigueur among European elites—knowledge not based on the traditional taxonomy of Exodus. Ridley notes that “Clara’s visit to Paris in 1749 is immortalized in the two greatest publishing projects undertaken in eighteenth-century Europe: Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-72) and Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle (1749-1804).” Clara was gazed upon by such luminaries as Voltaire and spent stretches of time grazing on the estates of Frederick the Great of Prussia and at Versailles with Louis XVI.
Even as she was courted by kings and princes, she was also a darling of the lower aristocracy and ordinary people. In a 1750 letter, Sir Horace Mann wrote to his friend Sir Horace Walpole that the ladies of Florence had taken to wearing their hair twisted up into a horn, “à la rhinocéros.” The crowds that thronged to see Clara in far-flung cities from Vienna to Paris, Berlin to Bologna, London to Leiden, brought great wealth and fame to Van der Meer.
Still, little is known today about the showman’s life. Only the broadest sketch is available, through the accounts of his employment with the Dutch East India Company, church rolls, and marriage records. He kept no diaries, and he disappeared from public record after Clara died, ending their partnership of 17 years. The most complete description of him in the book comes thanks to a print Ridley describes, an advertisement for one or another of Clara’s appearances. In it, Van der Meer appears in the garb of a gentleman, “[h]is wig, shoulder-length, and gently curled…neither overtly elaborate nor especially plain. Together, wig and high forehead frame a gently rounded face from which two keen eyes refuse to meet the viewer’s but instead stare off at some distant point on the high seas.”
Clara’s Grand Tour features some wonderful pictures of Clara, but many, including that of Van der Meer, are evoked only in Ridley’s prose. Another image Ridley only describes, “an anonymous Venetian painting” of Clara with “the so-called ‘Irish giant’, Magrath,” who was 7-foot-10, is so tantalizing that only difficulty obtaining reprint permission is a rational reason for its exclusion.
In the end, Clara comes off as more knowable than her keeper. Through her image—and through Ridley’s reconstruction of her tour and the feats of construction and agriculture required to move, hold, and keep her—she appears in all things to be patient, possessed of the otherworldly composure God ascribes to the behemoth, who “lieth under the shady trees, in the covert of the reed, and fens. The shady trees cover him with their shadow; the willows of the brook compass him about. Behold, he drinketh up a river, and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.”
Yet Clara’s tour, more than anything, marks the break between the biblical understanding of the rhinoceros and its passage into the annals of science and human memory. Before Clara’s tour, the rhino was a creature of myth and shadow, whose image lingered in half-imagined renderings in
art and literature. In Clara’s wake, the rhino was transformed from an inscrutable monster to a gentle herbivore. After Clara, the rhinoceros was so widely known to Europeans high and low that it was possible in 1755 for the bookseller Tom Davies to say of his friend Samuel Johnson, “He laughs like a rhinoceros,” and expect all to take his meaning. CP