October 3, 2022

AMSTERDAM – In Rembrandt’s etching “Adam and Eve in Paradise” from 1638 there are two symbols for good and bad. A dragon hovers over the couple as they look at the forbidden apple, which represents the danger of temptation. And in the background a small round elephant romps in the sunlight, a sign of chastity and grace. The meaning of these symbols, which are now in the dark, would have been recognizable in Europe in the 17th century.

The dragon that Rembrandt drew was an invention of his imagination. But the elephant looks surprisingly lifelike. How did Rembrandt, who never traveled outside the Netherlands, know what an elephant looks like?

The answer to this question is provided by the exhibition “Hansken, Rembrandt’s Elephant” in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition, which runs until August 29, tells the story of an Asian female elephant who was brought to the Netherlands in the 17th century, spent the rest of her life in Europe and became a popular and famous spectacle.

The life of this elephant has been a particular obsession of the Dutch naturalist and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing for almost two decades. In 2006 he published his first small volume on Hansken, but over the past 15 years he continued to look for additional documentation about her whereabouts and her biography, which led to a new book and the exhibition in the Rembrandt House.

He discovered that Hansken was paramount to the arts, entertainment and science during her short life of about 25 years. She was portrayed by Rembrandt at least three times; she traveled by ship to the Baltic States and on foot all the way to Denmark and down to Italy; and she became the first Asian elephant described by Western science.

“It’s actually a very tragic story, but it’s also fascinating,” said Leonore van Sloten, curator at the Rembrandt House. “It’s just amazing to think that there is so much information about an animal.”

“It was brought into a world it did not belong in,” added van Sloten, “but it became a kind of window to life at the time.”

Hansken was born in 1630 on the island of Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Company did business with the island, and the ruling governor of the Netherlands, Prince Frederick Henry, asked officials to return a young elephant to him as a curiosity.

Elephants were a real rarity in Europe before modern times. “There was an elephant in Europe in the 15th century,” said Roscam Abbing. “In the 16th century we know two or three elephants, the same goes for the 17th century.”

The trip lasted about seven months and Hansken came to the Netherlands in 1633. Frederick Henry kept them in his royal stables along with other exotic animals. But perhaps because of the cost and difficulty of their upkeep, he later gave them to a relative, Count John Maurice.

It changed hands at least twice before it was bought by Cornelis van Groenevelt, an aspiring entertainer, for 20,000 guilders, or around half a million dollars today. Hansken spent the rest of her life with van Groenevelt, who rode her from town to town as an attraction.

Van Groenevelt taught the elephant tricks – how to carry a bucket, lie down, wield a sword, and fire a weapon – depicted in prints by Swiss artist Jeremias Glaser and in other drawings and etchings by unknown artists, sometimes shown as adverts for them .

One of Hansken’s first stops was in Amsterdam in 1637, where Rembrandt probably saw her for the first time. That same year he made a detailed sketch of her, recording the textures and wrinkles of her skin and the curvature of her torso. The drawing probably served as a template for the later etching “Adam and Eve”.

“He was interested in the animal as such and not in the tricks she was performing,” said Roscam Abbing. “These other artists focused on her shooting a pistol or carrying a bucket of water, but not Rembrandt. He was interested in catching the elephant himself. “

Roscam Abbing was able to document Hansken’s arrival in at least 136 cities and towns in Europe; she visited Amsterdam four times in her life. Rembrandt saw her maybe two or three times. Around 1641 he sketched them again and presented them in three versions from different angles and in different poses: eating, lying down and walking.

After years of touring and performing, likely with poor diet and grooming (because Europeans knew almost nothing about caring for such an animal), Hansken broke on the 9th around 25 years old.

Her final moments were captured in three drawings by the Italian artist Stefano della Bella who happened to be there.

“It was unclear what happened to her; At first it was thought that she was poisoned, ”said van Sloten. After a medical examination, it was found that she had died of a fever from an infection; she had severe abscesses on her feet.

Van Groenevelt sold Hansken’s body to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II. De ‘Medici, who was interested in natural sciences. He had her body examined extensively and described in scientific literature. Both her skin and skeleton were later exhibited at the Uffizi Gallery.

The skin deteriorated and was thrown away in the 19th century, but Hansken’s skeleton survives today and is part of the permanent collection of the Museo della Specola at the University of Florence.

Her skull is on loan from the Rembrandt House as part of the exhibition.

“There are no bones that can be seen by any of Rembrandt’s contemporaries, not even Rembrandt’s own bones,” said van Sloten. “So it’s an incredible idea that we can stand next to her.”