Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Artists are most creative when they have to explain a missed deadline or a mistake in their artwork. This honorable tradition of excuses goes back as long as there have been artists. One of the best excuses came from Durer, an early illustrator.

The year was 1515, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration. Western civilization was awakening from centuries of medieval sleep, turning from superstition to the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance. Durer was tasked with drawing a rhinoceros but unfortunately, nobody had ever seen a rhinoceros in Europe. It was an almost mythical beast described by travelers from exotic lands.

Explorers captured a rhinoceros in the far jungles of India. They strapped the great beast into a ship and sent it back to Europe. It was on its way to Italy, a gift to Pope Leo X, when the ship went down at sea.

What could Durer do? He never got to see the rhinoceros, so in the time honored tradition of illustrators everywhere, he faked it from a description and from a sketch in a letter. His drawing (above) was inaccurate in many ways but there was no one to contradict him, so Durer's drawing established the European concept of a rhinoceros for the next 250 years.

I sometimes think about that primordial beast, plucked from its home in the jungle and carried off to a new world. It was destined to become the most famous rhinoceros in history, although that wasn't much consolation when that storm came up at sea. The ship sank, taking the poor, uncomprehending beast down to a watery grave.

Western civilization would eventually improve its technique for studying wildlife. But in 1515, when cultures didn't quite come together-- when the past didn't quite connect with the future, east didn't connect with west, faith didn't connect with rational inquiry-- there stood an illustrator astride the cultures, bridging the gap.


Bob Cosgrove said...

Two thoughts: one of the best things about your entertaining post is quite subtle, its description of Durer as "an early illustrator," which he indisputably was. Its a point we could all wish others would note more often about many famous artists of the past.

Second, the whole world of animal illustrators--from "fine" artists to circus poster folks--is a fascinating topic in itself. I don't like a lot of contemporary wildlife art, which I find contrived, tight, over-rendered. But a few are fabulous, and I think particularly of my favorite, Bob Kuhn, another "illustrator" who does it about as well as anybody has ever done--excepting possibly, a few folks like Durer.

José Pedro said...

"But in 1515, when cultures didn't quite come together-- when the past didn't quite connect with the future, east didn't connect with west, faith didn't connect with rational inquiry", it seems you're talking about the present times!
Let me say that those explorers you talk about were Portuguese, who, at that time ruled the Indian Ocean. And that the rhinoceros, a gift from the King D. Manuel I to the Pope, arrived at last to Rome, but embalmed...!
Congratulations for the nice and useful blog!
Pedro Ribeiro

José Pedro said...

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Pedro! I never heard that the rhinoceros was later recovered and embalmed. Do you have any idea how they retrieved it from the bottom of the sea? I wouldn't think that a dead rhinoceros floats!

Anita said...

It is really interesting at how the old masters can really cook up some great imaginations. but then is it not that like in all Artists in the present day we are now living in?

I enjoy your blog and plan on putting a link on my blog.

José Pedro said...

Hello, David! It seems that the ship where the rhinoceros was travelling wrecked (i'm not quite sure about this word; i'm using the "IM Translator plugin for IE" to get some help for my english)just at the depart, still in Lisbon at Cais das Colunas, but this i can verify later on.
To Sam Is Not My artist Name: Dürer made the draw over another one provided by an unknown portuguese who met the rhinoceros. Follow the link in my second comment.
Have a nice weekend!

José Pedro said...

Well, it seems that the link i was talking about is no longer working or, at least, for the moment. You may achieve some nice information at the wikipedia ( Here it says that the rhinoceros went down in the ocean by the coast of Italy, so now i have some serious doubts about my sources, but as soon as i can, i will make some research about this subject. Greetings.

eped said...

David & friends, thanks for the background on this guy. I've always like Durer's rhino for a lot of reasons. its "straddling," as you say, of mammalian & reptilian characteristics. (kinda like how we treat our dinosaurs.) then there’s the bony armor plates that must have been so “in” for the 16th century. Durer seems to really have had fun with the armor. like “if I’m going to make this stuff up I might as well let my fancy go, experiment”

the rhino does look a little sleepy

Justin said...

Another great post by you sir.

To be honest, I would like to see you do one of Dore- My art teacher wants me to do an illustration of Cantos 24, and I have recently found an incredible appreciation for Dore's work, now that I know about it.

Do you write a schedule for this or just when something hits you- you go for it?

David Apatoff said...

Justin, I was planning to write something about Dore, whose work I love and who was a very colorful character. Do you know that he had a torrid romance with Sarah Bernhardt, the great actress?

As for writing on a schedule, it goes like this: I walk around with about 473 things I'd like to write about dancing in my head. Unfortunately, since I work late most nights, I often don't find the time to sit down and type something out until the weekend. If I'm lucky, I can find a few minutes and post something mid-week. Sorry I can't be any more precise than that.

Aletha Kuschan said...

I wonder how it goes now. When I was a youth, any art described as "illustration" was banal (supposedly). So if your drawing was represenational in the wrong sort of way, you might be subject to this worst-of-all insults.
But Durer certainly was a great illustrator (so was Rembrandt) in every most exacting sense of the term. And it's nice to see him re-celebrated for illustration particularly.
"What is art?" is still a difficult question to answer, but sometimes art and illustration are the same thing.

Jack-Wheatley said...

there is a piece of art depicting this subject by your very own Walton Ford who i have mixed feeling about, i am too tired to leave a link so find out for yourself if you care