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.)

This powerful black chalk drawing of the front of an elephant is treated with the same care Rembrandt would have used for a commissioned portrait. The short broken strokes of chalk used by the artist evoke the rough texture of the animal’s skin, while simultaneously delineating the shape of the animal’s ears, trunk and eyes. There are at least four known black chalk studies of elephants by Rembrandt. All of them are of a female elephant in different poses, probably an Asian animal known to have been in Holland in 1641, whose name was Hanske. An elephant also appears in Rembrandt’s etching of Adam and Eve, thus indicating that the animal had a big effect on the artist’s imagination.

Although not widely thought of as a painter of animals, Rembrandt actually included them throughout his known oeuvre, particularly in his graphic work, which includes many sensitive portrayals. Rembrandt was a careful observer of the world around him, and loved to display his knowledge of all flora and fauna. In his paintings, animals can often be found on the sidelines, as in the painting in Detroit of The Visitation, where they serve as subtle reminders of everyday reality.