In the age of Instagram, it is easy to forget that there was a time—in fact, most of time—when information about what an animal looked like was passed between continents by sketches and word of mouth. If this rhinoceros looks a little funny, with whiskers under his chin and scale-covered plates, it is because Albrecht Dürer, the great Northern Renaissance artist and thinker who created this print, had never actually seen one.
Dürer was a deeply curious artist, and he made many sketches and watercolors of birds, fish, and other animals. These studies were sometimes developed for a print or a painting, but many of them are exquisite works of art in their own right. It was not uncommon for Dürer to go out of his way to observe a new species, traveling throughout his life to see a baboon, a lion, and even a beached whale.
In 1515, for the first time in a millennia, a rhinoceros stepped foot in Europe. Sultan Muzafar II, the ruler of present-day Gujarat, had offered the Indian rhino as a gift to the king of Portugal. The rhinoceros endured a long journey, transported in a ship filled with spices. The animal’s appearance in Lisbon was such a momentous event that it was chronicled by many. In the subsequent months, Dürer would likely have read a description of the rhinoceros, and he may have even seen another artist’s renderings.
For Dürer, news of the rhinoceros would have sparked both his creative and journalistic impulses. Dürer first made a sketch of the animal in pen and ink. In an inscription below the drawing, Dürer recorded information about the rhinoceros and its arrival in Lisbon. He then copied over the drawing onto a woodblock, making slight modifications. A skilled craftsman probably carved the block. As a relatively inexpensive way of disseminating information, the finished print offered the opportunity for those near and far to see a depiction of an animal that they could previously only have imagined. The woodcuts were in such high demand that they continued to be printed and distributed after Dürer’s death. Even as other living rhinoceroses made their way through Europe in the subsequent centuries, Dürer’s exceptional but somewhat anatomically inaccurate rendering remained popular, a testament to his remarkable treatment of an animal that he never lived to see.