The Rhinoceros

Researching the keywords ‘colonies,’ ‘migration,’ and country names (like ‘Suriname’) in an image archives will inevitably result in two kinds of images: photographs and prints. It is a reminder to me that colonialism borders pre- and post-daguerreotype. People wanted to know about the ‘brave new world’ they were occupying, even if they could not see it themselves. Those who did not travel to new and exotic lands would attend talks, read books, and view cabinets of curiosities in order to know about the things they could not see.

People were curious, and they romanticized the notion of ‘discovery’. They wanted the next best thing to being there, to understand the life there, human, plant, and animal. Researching those same keywords will eventually bring up images of animals.

Scientific discovery was closely connected to colonialism and migration. Charles Darwin‘s The Voyage of the Beagle was, and still is, one of the most popular travel memoirs, and it is a scientific field journal documenting exotic wildlife of the Galapagos. Many biologists traveled to new places, and they kept detailed descriptions and sketches of what they saw for scientific purpose. The general public also wanted to know what these scientists saw; therefore, artists were employed to illustrate books and images for talks. I recently found one of these images: a picture of a rhinoceros.


Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Two-Horned Rhinoceros.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1820.

It reminded me of an image I studied in art history class, Albrecht Dürer‘s The Rhinoceros (1515). I learned about it in relation to prints artists made without having a visual basis. Lots etchings and prints were created by artists who have never seen the lands, people, or animals they were illustrating for books.

Dürer drew his image of a rhinoceros from a detailed description, and a rough sketch. He had never seen one before, and never would see one. His illustration is of an animal that looks like it is wearing plated armor, and is very detailed. Regardless of the detail, and the efforts to be accurate, both Dürer’s illustration and the one above are like a version of ‘telephone’. They are interpretations developed from secondary sources; they are based on what other people have seen and passed on through words and sketches.

There is only so much information that can be passed on through words and sketchings. It is up to the artist to interpret and fill in the gaps. I learned about Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ because my drawing instructor wanted to impress upon me the importance of drawing what is real, and not what I think is real based on secondhand sight.

While I am mostly working with photographs for this research project, I cannot avoid the prints and how they were used to portray information to a curious and inquiring public. These images would colour the imaginations and opinions of the people who lived during these times. How were these prints used to feed the public’s opinions on migration, colonies, and other lands?

© Tanya Nielsen (, 2016


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