Forequarters of An Elephant, c. 1637

Four Quarters of An Elephant
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, Gift of J.P. Morgan Jr., I, 205
Black chalk; traces of framing line in graphite
7 5/8 x 7 7/16 in. (194 x 189 mm.)

It is recommended that every lesson begin with a general “looking” exercise to introduce students to the art work. For example, the full screen image of the selected work can be shown to students along with the rollover and zoomify features (see links above.) Teachers should first familiarize themselves with this section using the “About the Work” feature as well as other resources on the web site.

The Circle of Inquiry

The Circle of Inquiry is designed to assist users in applying critical thinking skills to the art works found on the Rembrandt web site. These skills are essential to learning and firmly grounded in the educational process. They can easily be integrated into classroom lessons in order to motivate students to apply higher-order thinking when examining Rembrandt’s work.

It is possible for students, upon observing any work of art, to respond to and ask or answer questions in no specific order. This is perfectly acceptable.

When using the Circle of Inquiry (see full document) from the viewpoint of a thinking process, one suggestion is that a specific order be followed: Describe→ Analyze → Interpret → Conclude. Other users may wish to introduce that skill which is most pertinent to their instructional level and needs. When this critical thinking process becomes internalized and taken to its full potential, it will enhance students’ abilities to think about other works of art and the general curriculum in the same way.

(Click here to access the Circle of Inquiry and select with your mouse a skill to bring up questions in each category.)


1. How would an artist living in Amsterdam in the 1600s have been able to draw an elephant? Was it drawn from life or a picture? What do you see in the drawing that supports each possibility? How is Rembrandt’s elephant more “real” than other engravings of the time
    Hansken the elephant
    Rijksmuseum: Hansken the Elephant
    The story of Hansken (Abbing)

2. What is the medium? How effective is it? (How would a pencil drawing have been different?) Do you think it is unfinished? Why or why not? (See further discussion of “unfinished” works in “St. Jerome.”)


1. Write an “Ode to an Elephant.” Include its qualities as well as physical characteristics. Give it a significance. What does it represent to you? (Or select another animal that you admire or other type of poem. Try using a well-known model, such as Blake.)
    Poetry Feast: Write an Ode Poems for Animals and Pets The Tiger by William Blake The Lamb by William Blake The Fly by William Blake

2. Make a charcoal drawing of an elephant using the grid/transfer method. Or carve an animal form out of Styrofoam, ink it and create a print. You can also use your computer to create the charcoal look from a photograph.
    Using a Grid to Draw
    Printmaking with Styrofoam and Brayers
    Dog Portrait: Grid Method
    Learn How to Draw: Hillberry tutorial - Charcoal and Pencil
    Drawing a Rhino in Charcoal
    Create a Charcoal Drawing out of any Photo

3. Create your own imaginary creature. Draw it yourself or describe it in detail so that someone else can draw it from your words. (Try both and see how similar/different they are.)
    Looking at Animals: Getty Exhibition
    Art History: The Rhinoceros
    Durer’s Rhinoceros


1. How does this elephant compare with others Rembrandt drew? Why would he include it in an etching of “Adam and Eve”? (Notice, too, the serpent!) Explore other examples of animals drawn by Rembrandt. What do they reveal about his attitude toward and knowledge of the natural world? What do they add to our understanding of Rembrandt, the man?
    Rembrandt Elephant
    Rembrandt Elephant 1637
    Three Studies of an Elephant
    Art Institute of Chicago: Adam and Eve (with Elephant)
    Rembrandt’s Hog
    Rembrandt: The Little Dog Sleeping
    Rembrandt: The Bull
    Two Studies of a Bird of Paradise

2. Consider again Rembrandt’s Elephant or Durer’s Rhino as “news” to the general public. How does a print in the 1600’s serve as the media of its day?
    Durer’s Rhino as true representation
    Folger Shakespeare Library: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper


1. How has an elephant been used symbolically in modern times? What does it represent? How does its meaning change in different cultures and time periods? (See particularly the Republican Party and the kingdom of Siam)
    History of the Republican Party
    House of Names: Elephant symbolism
    ChristStory Bestiary: Elephant
    Symbolism of Animals in Buddhism

2. How does the elephant figure in literature, particularly children’s literature? (See “Babar,” Dr. Seuss' Horton, Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”)
    Meet Babar’s family and friends
    NY Review of Books: The Royal Family - Babar books
    Associated Content: Lessons from Dr Suess and Horton the Elephant
    The Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling

3. Investigate the trade between the Dutch and Asia and Africa in the 1600’s. How did this trade and its subsequent demands for goods (such as ivory) affect the elephant population and trends in Dutch life? (What connection do the Dutch have to elephants today?)
    Macrohistory: African Empires, Slavery and Europeans, 1550 to 1700
    Colonial Voyage: Dutch and Portuguese Colonial History
    Research and Reports: The Dutch East India Company in Burma: 1634-1680
    Spiegel Online International: Elephant Parade in Netherlands
    Bangkok Post: Trading Memories - 400 years of Thai-Dutch relations


You can create various assessments of what students learned based on the kind of lesson you did. Since you are primarily dealing with a piece of art, qualitative assessments would be of most use. These assessments are most easily accessed by means of questioning. Here are some “starter” assessment questions.

  • What are the most significant [or central/useful/meaningful/surprising] things you have learned during this study?
  • What question(s) remain uppermost in your mind?
  • What are some intriguing ideas from this study?
  • How has this study provoked you to think about ideas in a new or different way?
  • How can you apply what you have learned to other areas of study?

    Center for Development and Learning: Student Self-Evaluation

Relationship to Social Studies Themes

Time, Continuity and Change: Trade between the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and Asia, Africa and India brought new and exotic imports to Amsterdam. The exchange of gifts was crucial to this trade. Elephant tusks, and even the occasional elephant, are known to have been given to the Dutch as gifts. Records show that an elephant was exhibited in Amsterdam during Rembrandt’s time. (See links under Extension 3.)

Culture: Broadsides, one-sided informational sheets meant to be posted in public places, began in the 1600’s and served as advertisements, announcements, propaganda, souvenirs and a way to disseminate information to the masses. Purposely printed for the mass market, they served as the tabloids of their day. An elephant drawing seen by a resident of Amsterdam in Rembrandt’s time would have been as fanciful or imaginative a creature as a beast or monster in comics and cartoons today. Sometimes, in the absence of the real thing, artists would draw from a written description. Thus, Durer imagined a rhinoceros to have a coat of armor, an idea that persisted for many years.

    What is a broadside?
    How Broadsides Began
    Durer’s Rhinoceros