Rembrandt’s white elephant

In July 1633 the Dutch East India Company sent seven ships from Batavia (present-day Jakarta) to Amsterdam. They were laden with sacks of peppercorns, 25,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain, a tiger and a female albino elephant. The animals were put on public display and the elephant’s name was Hansken.

Hansken was born in Ceylon, so the fleet must have stopped off there on its way back to Europe. The name is a Dutch diminutive of the Malayalam word aana, meaning “elephant”. One enthralled spectator was the Mayor of Harderwijk, Ernst Brinck, a traveller and avid student of science. He was known to have kept a visitor’s book, which included an entry made by the famous Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei depicting the planet Jupiter and its moons. Protestant Holland held less risk for such heresies than Catholic Italy.

Brinck and his eight-year-old son, Lodewijk, went to see the animals in the menagerie at Amsterdam’s Old Glass House. Brinck asked many questions of the elephant’s keeper, noting in his diary answers that were only partly factual. Lodewijk was allowed to ride the animal, which ate two-dozen eight-pound loaves of bread a day. Such was the elephant’s fame that many 17th century houses in Amsterdam began fixing “White Elephant” plaques to their walls. Many can still be seen today.

It is not clear when Rembrandt van Rijn first saw Hansken. He had a keen interest in exotic animals and drew lions and camels at fairs and markets. In 1637 Rembrandt made charcoal sketches of Hansken, one with people in view to show her size and weight. At about the same time, Rembrandt began collecting engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, one of which was the inspiration for his own etching depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In contrast to Dürer, Rembrandt portrayed rather older figures and at the lower right, in the background, he included a miniature portrait of an elephant.

Hansken toured many European countries, appearing to great acclaim at fairs and in the local publicity of the day. Her owner even advertised a print of Hansken with the following poem:

“Hansken the Elephant is my name,
In many a land, I’ve found great fame.
The biggest beast in any land,
Performing tricks and sleights of hand.
With a hook I’m prompted and conducted,
To do that which my master instructed.
So buy this print, so as not to forget,
The money spent you’ll not regret.”

In July 1651, Hansken travelled via Switzerland to Rome and Florence. The artist Stefano della Bella drew her twice, the second time just after her death on 9 November 1655.

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