In a series for the first day of each month, Hyperallergic is exploring some firsts in art, from the earliest known depictions of things to pioneers in the visual fields.
In late-1820s Paris, women wore their hair in towering horn shapes, people pasted giraffe-themed wallpapers on their homes, fabric was manufactured in spotted patterns, and one of the most popular colors was “giraffe yellow.” Everything was “la mode à la girafe.” The cause of this frenzy for the African mammal was the arrival of a dainty young creature from Sudan: the first giraffe in France.
She’s now known as Zarafa, thanks to Michael Allin’s thorough and engaging 1999 book Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris. “Giraffe, girafe, giraffa (English, French, Italian) — all derive from the Arabic zerafa, a phonetic variant of zarafa, which means ‘charming’ or ‘lovely one,'” Allin explains in the book. In her lifetime from 1825 to 1845 she was called “la Belle Africaine” (“the Beautiful African”), or simply “la girafe,” being that there were no others. Taken from her mother as a baby, and carried on the back of a camel, Zarafa was spirited away from her home as a gift to Charles X, King of France.
Henry Nicholls at the Guardian writes that this living gift, conveyed by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, was “a gesture he hoped would take the sting out of opposition to his efforts to suppress the Greek uprising against Ottoman rule.” France itself was far from stable, just emerging from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and approaching the 1830 July Revolution which would overthrow the new king.
Yet wherever she appeared, the royalty-bound Zarafa caused a sensation, beginning with her landing in Marseille in October of 1826. She came by boat from Alexandria (the deck was altered so she could stick her head out through a hole). Elena Passarello, in her column on famous historic animals for the Paris Review, notes that the “last giraffe to set foot on the continent — the prize beast of a Medici prince — did so 340 years earlier, but that creature never made it onto French soil.” So to see a giraffe first-hand for the first time was extraordinary, as that strange assembly of long neck, slender legs, a lattice of spots, and seductive eyes moved with surprising elegance.
Two other giraffes gifted around the same time died within a couple of years, but Zarafa was carefully transported to Paris by what seemed the least dangerous way: on foot. Accompanying her on the 550-mile walk were two Sudanese caretakers named Hassan and Atir, a few milk cows, and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the aging, influential naturalist. A custom raincoat protected her body, and a veritable parade of rotating spectators surrounded her path. When the procession got to Lyon, 30,000 people turned out to see her approach. Arriving in Paris in 1827, where she nibbled rose petals from the king’s hand, she was lodged at the Jardin des Plantes. Some 600,000 visitors stopped by to witness the giraffe in her first six months in the city.
Along with inspiring some eccentric fashion, and a whole host of commemorative porcelain, accessories, combs, soap, and fans, Zarafa also made her mark on art. A rise in the popularity of animal sculpture by artists like Antoine-Louis Barye was partly inspired by observing Zarafa and the other newly arrived creatures at the Jardin des Plantes. Nicolas Hüet, the official painter for the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle at the Paris menagerie, perhaps captured Zarafa most beautifully in luminous watercolor, with a groom resting alongside her. Caricatures of Charles X, who had a rather long neck, sometimes depicted him as an awkward giraffe. One of the anthropomorphic king being wrangled by a member of the clergy read: “La plus grande bête qu’on ait jamais vue” (“The biggest beast that we’ve ever seen”). In 1827, Honoré de Balzac satirized a Paris visit by a group of Osage from North America, imagining a discourse between the indigenous people and the giraffe as a critique on Charles X. (It’s worth noting that in the 19th century, human zoos in Europe exhibited “exotic” people as well as animals.)
The giraffomania fashion faded by 1830; and the reign of Charles X likewise ended that July, in a rebellion immortalized in Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” But Zarafa lived until 1845, after which, like some many animals that have been claimed, controlled, and used by humans, she was taxidermied. She’s still on view at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle. Delacroix, who erroneously described Zarafa as a male giraffe, wrote upon witnessing this taxidermy in 1847 that the animal had died “in obscurity as complete as his entry in the world had been brilliant.”