AMSTERDAM – In Rembrandt’s 1638 etching “Adam and Eve in Paradise,” there are two symbols of good and evil. A dragon hovers over the couple as they contemplate the poison apple, representing the danger of temptation. And in the background, a little, rotund elephant romps in the sunlight, a sign of chastity and grace. The meaning of these symbols, while obscure today, would have been recognizable in 17th-century Europe.
The dragon Rembrandt drew was a figment of his imagination. But the elephant looks surprisingly true to life. How did Rembrandt, who never traveled outside the Netherlands, know what an elephant looked like?
The answer to this question comes in the form of an exhibition, “Hansken, Rembrandt’s Elephant,” at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition, running through Aug. 29, tells the story of a female Asian elephant, taken to the Netherlands in the 17th century, who spent the rest of her life in Europe and became a popular and famous spectacle.
This elephant’s life has been a particular obsession of Dutch naturalist and art historian Michiel Roscam Abbing for almost two decades. He published his first slim volume about Hansken in 2006, but continued to search for additional documentation about her whereabouts and biography for the past 15 years, resulting in a new book and the Rembrandt House show.
What he discovered is that Hansken had an outsize importance in art, popular entertainment and science during her short life of about 25 years. She was depicted at least three times by Rembrandt; she traveled to the Baltics by ship, and by foot all the way up to Denmark and down to Italy; and she became the first Asian elephant to be described by Western science.
“It’s a very tragic story, actually, but it’s also fascinating,” said Leonore van Sloten, a curator at the Rembrandt House. “It’s just incredible to think that there is so much information about one animal.”
“She was brought to a world where she didn’t belong,” van Sloten added, “but she became a kind of window onto how life was at that time.”
Hansken was born in 1630 on the island of Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. The Dutch East India Company was doing business with the island, and the Netherlands’ ruling governor, Prince Frederick Henry, asked officials to send him back a young elephant as a curiosity.
Elephants were a true rarity in Europe before modern times.
“In the 15th century, there was one elephant in Europe,” Roscam Abbing said. “In the 16th century, we know of two or three elephants, and the same is true for the 17th century.”
The trip took about seven months, and Hansken arrived in the Netherlands in 1633. Frederick Henry kept her in his royal stables, along with other exotic animals. But, perhaps because of the expense and difficulty of her upkeep, he later gave her to a relative, Count John Maurice.
She changed hands at least twice more before she was bought by Cornelis van Groenevelt, an aspiring entertainer, for 20,000 guilders, or the equivalent of about a half-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 gun – that were depicted in prints by Swiss artist Jeremias Glaser, and in other drawings and etchings by unknown artists, sometimes as advertising for her shows.
One of Hansken’s first stops was in Amsterdam, in 1637, which is probably the first time Rembrandt saw her. He created a detailed sketch of her that same year, capturing the textures and folds of her skin and the curvature of her trunk. The drawing probably served as a study for the later “Adam and Eve” etching.
“He was interested in the animal as such, and not in the tricks she performed,” Roscam Abbing said. “These other artists focused on her shooting a pistol or carrying a bucket with water, but not Rembrandt. He was interested in capturing the elephant itself.”
Roscam Abbing was able to document Hansken’s arrival in at least 136 cities and towns in Europe. She visited Amsterdam four times during her life. Rembrandt may have seen her two or three of those times. Around 1641, he sketched her again, depicting three versions of her from several angles, and in different poses: eating, reclining and walking.
After years of touring and performing, probably with poor nutrition and care (because Europeans knew almost nothing about caring for such an animal), Hansken collapsed in the Piazza della Signoria, a major square in Florence, Italy, on Nov. 9, 1655, around age 25.
Her final moments were captured in three drawings by an Italian artist, Stefano della Bella, who happened to be there.
“It was unclear what happened to her; it was at first thought that she had been poisoned,” van Sloten said.
After a medical examination, it was determined 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 the natural sciences. He had her corpse studied extensively and described in scientific literature. Both her skin and skeleton were later put on display in 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 to the Rembrandt House as part of the exhibition.
“There are no bones that you can still see of any other contemporary of Rembrandt’s, not even the bones of Rembrandt himself,” van Sloten said. “So it’s an incredible notion that we can stand next to her.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]