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Rembrandt, “An Elephant” (1637), black chalk and charcoal (via British Museum)

Hansken the elephant was an incredible creature. Not only could she sword fight, wave a flag, and put a hat on her head, the 17th century animal performer was also drawn by none other than Rembrandt in 1637. And now she has been declared the first animal to be used to define her Asian elephant species — Elephas maximus.

This also means that Rembrandt’s portrait, held by the British Museum, is not just a fine likeness in black chalk and charcoal, but is capturing the Asian elephant that was used to first describe the species. How this came about is a curious journey, one explained in detail in an article published this week in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. For it was Swedish naturalist Carl Linneaus who made an error of identities back when he made what was the first description of Elephas maximus, using a Latin text on a skeleton by British naturalist John Ray and a jarred elephant fetus collected by Dutch zoologist Albertus Seba. But it would turn out the elephant fetus wasn’t an Asian elephant at all, but an African one (perhaps its little ears, which are differently shaped for each species, were smushed against the glass), which sent scientists on a curious journey that eventually brought them to Hansken.

An engraving showing Hansken’s skills (not by Rembrandt) (via Wikimedia)

As the scientists state in their abstract of the article: “Having confirmed its identity as an Asian elephant through both morphological and ancient DNA analyses, we designate this specimen as the lectotype of E. maximus.” Basically, it’s significant for studying zoology that what animals were actually used to define what a species is (the “lectotypes”) are confirmed, and through DNA testing this brought them to a skeleton still on display at the University of Florence’s Natural History Museum, which turned out to be Hansken, leading back to the Rembrandt drawing. For while John Ray described her skeleton, Rembrandt showed her in full life.

A flag-waving Hansken (via Wikimedia)

Rembrandt, being fascinated with anatomy, drew multiple elephants, but the Hansken drawing is especially lively with the detail on her skin and the silhouettes of a small appreciative crowd. As the Natural History Museum in London’s report on the story stated:

“This now means that Rembrandt’s paintings and sketches are the original and correct portrayal of the type specimen of an Asian elephant.”

“Resolution of the type material of the Asian elephant, Elephas maximus Linnaeus, 1758 (Proboscidea, Elephantidae)” was published this week in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...