The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is one which when once seen will never be forgotten.  Not necessarily for the breathtaking art but for the unusual subject of the painting.  My featured painting to today is The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi.

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi (1751)

Longhi was born in Venice in the latter part of 1701. His parents were Antonia and his father Alessandro Falca, who was a silversmith.  Pietro changed his surname to Longhi once he started to paint.  He studied art initially under the guidance of the painter from Verona, Antonio Balestra, and finally was accepted as an apprentice to Giuseppe Crespi the Baroque painter from Bologna.  Longhi returned to Venice when he was thirty-one years of age and married Caterina Maria Rizzi and the couple went on to have eleven children.  Sadly, and it is a common story of that era, only three of their children reached the age of maturity, one of whom, Alessandro, became a successful portraitist.

His early work featured a number of altarpieces and religious paintings and he was commissioned to carry out a number of frescos in the walls and ceilings of the Ca’Sacredo in Venice, which is now an exclusive hotel.  Later his art turned to genre scenes of contemporary life in Venice of the aristocracy and the working class.  He produced numerous works and in many instances painted many different versions of the same scene.  His type of art,  his satirical look at everyday Venetian life with its coffee-drinking, receptions and social soireeswas extremely popular..  Some of his paintings remind one of the type of paintings done by William Hogarth.  The difference between the two was that Hogarth was often brutally satirical with his paintings in which he mocked the life of English folk whereas Longhi just wanted to chronicle the everyday life of his compatriots without standing in judgment and acting as a satirical moralist.  In a number of cases his patrons, who had commissioned his work where featured in the works and maybe for that reason Longhi was careful not to offend them.   Bernard Berenson, the American Art historian, talked about Longhi’s artistic style and the comparison with Hogarth when he wrote:

“…Longhi painted for the Venetians passionate about painting, their daily lives, in all dailiness, domesticity, and quotidian mundane-ness. In the scenes regarding the hairdo and the apparel of the lady, we find the subject of gossip of the inopportune barber, chattering of the maid; in the school of dance, the amiable sound of violins. It is not tragic… but upholds a deep respect of customs, of great refinement, with an omnipresent good humor distinguishes the paintings of the Longhi from those of Hogarth, at times pitiless and loaded with omens of change..”.

Longhi became Director of the Academy of Drawing and Carving in 1763 and it was around this time that he concentrated almost all his artistic efforts in to portraiture, ably assisted by his son, Alessandro.  He died aged 83 in 1785.

The featured painting today is based on historical facts and revolves around the Carnevale di Venezia, the annual festival, held in Venice. The Carnival starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday.  This grand event was described by John Evelyn, the 17th century English traveller and diarist:

“…At Shrovetide all the world repair to Venice, to see the folly and madness of the Carnival; the women, men, and persons of all conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses, with extravagant music and a thousand gambols, traversing the streets from house to house, all places being then accessible and free to enter. Abroad, they fling eggs filled with sweet water, but sometimes not over-sweet. They also have a barbarous custom of hunting bulls about the streets and piazzas, which is very dangerous, the passages being generally narrow. The youth… contend in other masteries and pastimes, so that it is impossible to recount the universal madness of this place during this time of license….”

The painting which hangs in the National Gallery in London centres on the unusual spectacle of Clara the young rhinoceros, which was brought to Europe in 1741 by a Dutch sea captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, who had bought the lumbering creature.  It is believed that she was only the fifth rhinoceros to be imported from India to Europe since the days of the Roman Empire.  Clara, after extensive travels in Europe, arrived in Venice ten years later.   The female rhinoceros in Longhi’s painting, seen munching away at some hay seems somewhat docile, even depressed, as caged animals often are who suffer such a fate.

The Audience

Behind her we see the keeper of the animal and a number of spectators.  The keeper holds aloft a whip and the horn of the rhinoceros which according to historical notes, was not cut off but knocked off by Clara herself due to her continuous rubbing it against the sides of her cage.  The small audience of seven, some of whom wear their Carnival masks stand on wooden benches in an almost triangular formation.  They show no interest in the poor creature as they gaze vacuously in all different directions.  The elegant lady in the front row wearing a dark lace shawl, edged in gold is Catherine Grimani.  She stares directly out at us.  Her white-masked suitor, on her left, is her husband John Grimani and the couple were the commissioners of the painting.  Their servant stands to her right and looks straight ahead.  The man to the right of the group wearing a red cloak and has a long clay pipe in his mouth has his eyes cast downwards and seems lost in his own thoughts.  Above him, Longhi has painted a scroll-like notice which tells us all about the painting, which when translated reads:

“True Portrait of a Rinocerous  conducted in Venice  year 1751:

made for hand by  Pietro Longhi

Commissions  S of Giovanni  Grimani Servi Patrick Veneto “.

The small girl in the back row seems totally disinterested in Clara.  With the exception of the animal’s keeper brandishing the severed horn there seems no relationship with the audience and the animal on display.  It is if Longhi has merely added them to please his patrons and highlight the fact that the exhibition was at Carnival time in Venice.

One thing that I found fascinating is the lady in the upper middle of the audience dressed in the blue and white gown.  Instead of a white carnival mask she is wearing the soft black leather Moretta mask.  Moretta, means darkness, and the masks were only worn by women and were not tied around the wearer’s head but held in place by a leather button on the inside of the mask which is held in the clenched teeth of the wearer.  It has only two nearly circular openings for the eyes, restricting the lady’s breath a little, as the only airway is through the eye openings down to the nose.  Sweat also has to evaporate through the openings as well, quickly making the face hot.  Not only was that uncomfortable but it prevented the wearer from speaking.  This enforced silence especially pleased their male counterparts !

I was going to add a male-chauvinist comment, but thought better of it  !!!!!!

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, Pietro Longhi, Rococo, Venetian painters and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi

  1. Anne says:

    Oh come on now, You would be bored stiff if ladies from Art Group on Tour turned up adorning soft black Moretta Masks!!
    Poor Clara she really does look depressed. I am not terribly fond of this picture, but as you say once seen never forgotten. The audience appear rather a macabre ghoulish bunch, so no certainly not my cup of tea.

  2. Pingback: A Venetian Carnival; The Grand Tour! – Mary Fischer's Learning Journey

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