The Artist Had Never Seen a [Insert Animal] Before

It’s always interesting to see how an artist depicts an animal that he/she has never seen. Vasari writes that Paolo Uccello wanted to depict a chameleon his Four Seasons, but since the artist had never seen a chameleon, he opted to draw a camel instead.1 I guess you can kind of see Uccello’s logic in picking a camel, since camaleonte and camello are similar words in Italian (the two words are a little similar in English, too). I wish that Uccello’s Four Seasons still existed; I’d love to see what that chameleon/camel looked like.

Durer attempted to depict a rhinoceros, even though he had never seen one. He really didn’t do too bad of a job (see woodcut print The Rhinoceros (1515) on the right), although the armor-like plates are a little funny. Durer became interested in the rhino after seeing a sketch and reading descriptions in a letter from Lisbon.2 The year that Durer made this print, 1515, was a big year for rhinoceroses in Europe. Both the king of Spain and king of Portugal were trying to win the favor of the pope by giving him rhinoceroses. The pope apparently liked the West African rhino (the gift from Spain) best, which allegedly answers why the pope gave more New World territory to Spain.3 I bet that Durer was trying to maximize on the interest in rhinoceroses during this year, since woodcut prints can be widely distributed, popularized, etc.

There are other animal depictions which I think are amusing. When writing my thesis, I would often chuckle at Aleijadinho’s depiction of a lion. Since the Brazilian artist had never seen a lion before, he sculpted this one with the face of a monkey:

Aleijadinho, detail of lion next to the prophet Daniel, 1800-1805

And you have to love Aleijadinho’s great attempt at a whale. I especially love the whale’s two spouts (kind of like nostrils, I guess) and fins:

Aleijadinho, detail of whale next to the prophet Jonah, 1800-1805

Aleijadinho, side-view of Jonah’s whale, 1800-1805

Medieval bestiaries are full of creative depictions of animals. I particularly like this depiction of a crocodile and this depiction of an elephant (check out those tusks and horse-like flanks!).

I know there are lots of other interesting/creative/bizarre depictions of creatures that have resulted from the artist never seeing the actual animal. What ones do you know? Do you have a favorite? Let’s see who can give the most bizarre example…

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 82.

2 “The Rhinoceros,” in Web Gallery of Art, available from , accessed 5 November 2009.

3 Hemanta Mishra, Bruce Babbitt, Jim Ottaway, Jr., The Soul of the Rhino (Guilman, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2008), 137. Available online here.

  • heidenkind says:

    When I first saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley–Copley had never seen a shark before, but he did a fair job with it:

    Once I went to a strange exhibit of completely not-famous (and for good reason) Victorian paintings, and one of the artists had tried to paint an African person. But it was pretty obvious he (or she) had never seen a black person before. That was probably the strangest thing I've ever seen. I can't remember the title of the work, though.

  • M says:

    Oh yeah, I totally forgot that Copley had never seen a shark before. Good call!

    I thought about discussing artists that had never seen a certain race before, but I might have to save that for another post. I bet that Victorian painting was really strange. There is one medieval tympanum that I think is really interesting, it shows the Mission of the Apostles at the Cathedral in Vezelay. This tympanum shows the apostles proselytizing among different races, including the legendary giant-eared Panotii of India and Pygmies (who require ladders to mount their horses). It's interesting to see what artists envisioned when they basically had travel accounts to provide descriptions of other races.

  • kashurst says:

    I don't know if this counts, but have ou ever seen the first California state flag? (CA flag is a star on the left and grizzly bear on the right, with the words :California Republic" underneath)I don't think the artist (William L. Todd) had ever seen a bear. It looks more like a pig, or a cow, but not a bear!

  • M says:

    Ha ha! I never noticed that the bear looks a little boar-ish. Good call, kashurst.

  • Al says:

    Actually I think Durer's rhino is a reasonably accurate representation of an Indian Rhino apart from the little horn on the neck.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the link to the Indian Rhinoceros entry, Al. You're right, there is quite a bit of accuracy. I was surprised by the second photo in that Wikipedia entry, because you can see a little of the ribcage-like structure (bones?) that curve down the body of the rhino. I thought that structure was something that Durer had inaccurately added to his woodcut, but apparently not. Thanks for pointing that out.

    The rhino in that second photo also has more variation and texture in his skin, which looks similar to the chainmail-like skin of Durer's rhino. How interesting.

    I notice Durer's extra horn too. You're right, that definitely is inaccurate.

  • e says:

    I feel like I learn so much from this blog from you writing it and also the people who comment.

    It really brings a lot of awareness into my life. If only I had realized how satisfying art can be.

  • M says:

    You just made my day, e. 🙂

  • e says:

    I'm glad that could bring some happiness into your life. It certainly is true. I've always really liked sculpture, but to appreciate paintings and other forms of art is really great. I've been thinking about that Copley painting I saw the other day quite a bit. I'm certain it would have never caught my eye if I hadn't been reading your blog. I was able to notice such a lovely technique and brush strokes, and I am certain I would have never noticed such things before.

    The new found appreciation of art has really changed my perspective on a lot of things. Plus, I feel like I'm continuing my education outside of the classroom. I love it.

  • M says:

    If anyone is interested, here is a short little podcast which discusses Durer's "Rhinoceros."

  • Michael says:

    A funny example of an artisan, who didn´t know the animal he sculptered, is the Elefant at the outer facade of the choir at the Muenster (Dome) in Basel, Switzerland. The mason(s) are unknown, but the elefant was sculptered before the earthquake from 1356, which destroyed much of the Muenster with the exemption of this part.

    Photo of the Elefant:

    Wikipedia-Article of the Basel Muenster:

  • M says:

    What a great example, Michael! Thanks for sharing. I was unaware of that elephant sculpture before – I love it.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.