LONDON - ‘They call it Rhinoceros. It is here shown in full stature. Its colour is that of a freckled toad and it is covered by a hard, thick shell. It is of the same size as an elephant but has shorter legs and is well capable of defending itself. On the tip of its nose is a sharp, strong horn which it hones wherever it finds a stone … It is ... so well armoured that the elephant cannot harm it. They say that the Rhinoceros is fast, cunning and daring.’
(Inscription on a sketch of the Rhinoceros sent to Nuremberg from Portugal)
In 1515, the extraordinary animal known as a rhinoceros captured Albrecht Dürer’s imagination, and the forthcoming Prints & Multiples sale in London features two impressions of the artist’s remarkable woodcut of the creature. The animal had arrived in Lisbon in 1515, and was the first specimen of rhinoceros seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. It caused a sensation and certainly seemed mythical to contemporaries. The rhinoceros had been despatched to the King of Portugal, Manuel I, by an Indian sultan. Seeking approval for his Eastern Empire, the king then sent the rhinoceros to Pope Leo X. However, the ship carrying the animal sank and it drowned, but fortunately, was recovered and the rhino was delivered stuffed to the Pope.
Dürer never saw a rhino with his own eyes, but sketches and descriptions were sent to him in Nuremberg, and the prints and drawings he made show his natural affinity for animals. The artist more than compensates for his lack of first-hand knowledge by imagining scaly legs, an armoured plate and a twisted horn on its back. Of the two woodcuts offered for sale, one is a chiaroscuro impression printed in brown and yellowish-olive and the other in black and white. Both are early 17th century impressions, showing how this beloved image endured. In fact, so convincing was Dürer’s image that for the next 300 years, European illustrators borrowed from this woodcut, even after they had seen living rhinoceroses. Until the late 18th century, it was taken to be an accurate representation of the animal.
A celebrity in his own day, Dürer had established himself as a truly international artist, already famous for his large woodcuts from series such as The Apocalypse and The Life of the Virgin in 1511 and iconic engravings by 1515. His use of new printing technology and business savvy ensured that his works were appreciated and collected widely, and his ‘AD’ monogram that was placed in a prominent position in the woodcut became a widely recognised and respected trademark and sign of authorship.