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Meredith Martin on Jean-Baptiste Oudry

BEFORE BARBARO or Dolly the cloned sheep, there was Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who reigned as the biggest celebrity animal in mid-eighteenth-century Europe. Escorted by her Dutch owner, Clara toured the continent between 1741 and 1758, enchanting kings, commoners, and artists alike due to her exotic pedigree, surprisingly docile nature, and ability to slake an Enlightenment thirst for firsthand observation, in this case of an animal that had not been seen in Europe in nearly two hundred years.

During a 1749 engagement at Paris’s Saint Germain fair, an annual Dionysian event improbably held during Lent, Clara was visited by the French artist and noted workaholic Jean-Baptiste Oudry, who scrupulously studied her form before embarking on an enormous, life-size rendering of the fabled creature. Oudry’s ambition was threefold: to offer a corrective to the prevailing, but anatomically inaccurate,

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