Thursday, 26 November 2015




At this late point in the term, many of us will soon be turning to compilations of cuddly-looking animals to help us push through our final assignments. While brainstorming for this edition of Throwback Thursday, though, I began to wonder. How accurately could I imagine a baby panda turning somersaults had I only ever read a description of pandas in a book?

Here are seven of the most interesting attempts to depict little-known animals in the era before photography.


In many cases, European artists were working from their own partial understandings of the animals they hoped to depict. Writings from antiquity, on-site sketches from explorers, dead carcasses, and cultural and aesthetic expectations came together in various ways to inform an artist’s process.

The Rhinoceros (first published in 1515, this edition after 1620) by Albrecht Dürer. Source.

Albrecht Dürer prepared his famous drawing and woodcut from reports that an Indian sultan gifted King Manuel of Portugal a rhinoceros in 1515. Despite his detailed artwork, Dürer never actually saw the rhinoceros. He based his woodcut on a brief sketch and a written account regarding the animal’s prominent feature upon its arrival in Lisbon. Dürer’s depiction was so convincing that was accepted without question and reproduced by Europeans for centuries, even long after Europeans were re-introduced to what living rhinos look like.

Capivard, ou couchon d’Eau au Pied d’un Bananier (1698). Source.

In one of the first European depictions of a capybara, this “hog of the water” is sitting under a banana tree to have a snack. This engraving designed by a French artist was printed alongside Froget’s narrative regarding his travels to Rio de Janeiro:

“We brought three oxen, a few chickens, a tiger-cat, and another animal quite extraordinary, that the Portuguese call 'Capivard,' which has the body of a pig, the head of a rabbit, and thick hair the color of ash: it has no tail at all, and sits on its rear quarters like a monkey. It is almost always in the water, and does not venture onto land except at night when it ravages all of the gardens and trees that have fruit.”

The Konguoro From New Holland (1772) by George Stubbs. Source.

George Stubbs, like Dürer before him, never had the chance to see the animal he painted. Following Sir Joseph Banks’ voyage to the Pacific with Captain James Cook, Banks commissioned Stubbs, the preeminent animal painter at the time, to paint him an Australian kangaroo. Stubbs relied on cursory drawings by the voyage’s artist, Bank’s eyewitness account, and a kangaroo pelt, which was rudimentarily stuffed to assist his sense of the animal’s dimensions. Stubb’s Konguoro became the first representation of Australia’s other-worldly animals in western art.

A Striped Hyena (1831) by Aloys Zötl. Source.

Throughout his lifetime, Austrian artist Aloys Zötl painted a series of watercolours depicting animals, giving no clue to what he used as references. As surrealist André Breton wrote: “Lacking any biographical details about the artist, one can only indulge one's fantasies in imagining the reasons which might have induced this workman from Upper Austria, a dyer by profession, to undertake so zealously between 1832 and 1887 the elaboration of the most sumptuous bestiary ever seen.” (Aloys Zötl in Surrealism and Painting, 1956)


Similar attempts to reinterpret and depict unfamiliar animals can also be found in the history of Chinese and Japanese art. Trade with Europeans, beginning in the mid-16th century, would complicate the efforts of East Asian artists by providing them with access to new species already having been described and depicted by Westerners.

The Tribute Giraffe with Attendant (16th century). Source.

A gift from the king of Bengal, this giraffe was brought in 1414 to the court of the Yongle Emperor (1402-24), who presided over Ming China's short-lived period of overseas exploration. It was immediately identified as a qilin, a divine dragon-like chimera of Chinese mythology. In later images commemorating its arrival, the giraffe's fur is depicted as geometrically uniform and almost scaly to reflect this interpretation.

The giraffe was taken, along with a white elephant and other curiosities retrieved from the Indian Ocean, as an "auspicious sign" of the regime's legitimacy (an interpretation occasioned, perhaps, by the Yongle Emperor's violent overthrow of his nephew twelve years before). Curiously, many depictions of qilin made in subsequent centuries have disproportionately long necks, a feature not found previously...

Emo Niao Tu (1774) by Yang Dazhang. Source.
This image was created to accompany a set of poems written by the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) celebrating the emo niao tu (emo birds), the cassowaries of New Guinea. His interest in the cassowary appears related to its fashionability in European courts, and he directly quotes the 1675 autopsy report of the specimen belonging to Louis XIV of France in his poetry. The painting appears based on such secondary sources, rather than a live subject.

The painting's style matches other works depicting "precious and strange beasts from all over the world" which the Qianlong Emperor owned or wished to acquire, using vivid colours and almost otherworldly backgrounds. He sought to use "supernatural animal" imagery to demonstrate the blessed nature of his reign. The Emperor claimed the cassowary was related to the divine shile bird of Chinese mythology (the "bird of worldly happiness”), arguing that "Despite having no wings, it has arrived here; does it not have some purpose?"

Rakuda no zu (A Pair of Camels) (1824) by Utagawa Kuniyasu. Source.
This pair of camels was offered to the Japanese Shogun Tokugawa Ienari in 1821. The Dutch trade mission in Nagasaki, which held a monopoly on European trade with Japan from 1641 to 1851, had gifted previous Shoguns horses, hunting dogs, ostrichs, tiger cubs, and even elephants. Political changes led Ienari to refuse the camels however, who spent the rest of their lives amongst the Dutch in Nagasaki.

Like the merchants themselves, the camels attracted the curiosity of Japanese sightseers and artists; the Dutch mission head's courtesan apparently made a fortune charging admission to see the camels. This print differs greatly in its depiction of the camels compared to other images from 1824; artistic conventions around the peculiar creatures were yet to be established in Japan.

Have you seen any strange depictions of exotic animals in art recently?


  1. I absolutely love this. The giraffe is so wavy! This reminds me of the fanciful creatures used to populate unknown areas in early maps of North America.
    Looking at and remembering animals that live among us is hard enough. I have seen a raccoon many times but don't ask me to draw one! Imagine if you were going straight off of rudimentary journal drawings and personal accounts? A very interesting subject, thank you...

  2. Thank you for sharing! I love the art works. And most of all I love pets! That's why I volunteer in the exotic animal veterinarian near me for 2 years so in a little way I can still help other pet and pet parent to give some advices in their questions and problems. For those interested, here are the details.

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    Thank you!