In yesterday’s article, I looked at some European paintings of elephants made before the middle of the eighteenth century. I continue here through to the early twentieth century.
After the Punic Wars and the destruction of Carthage, elephants continued to be used in war. Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s spectacular watercolour of the first Triumph of Pompey from 1765 shows this unique event from 79 BCE. Pompey had tried to enter Rome with his chariot drawn by four elephants, as shown here, but the gate was actually too narrow and he was forced to switch to horses. These weren’t Roman elephants, but had been captured by Pompey as a result of his defeat of the army of Domitius at the Battle of Utica, and may therefore have been among the last of the North African species before it became extinct.
One of JMW Turner’s most radical early works, showing Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), must have been influenced by the artist’s own firsthand experience of crossing Alpine passes. This is also radical in that the famous elephants are downplayed almost to the point of being invisible under Turner’s extraordinary storm sky. In fact, in the centre foreground, under a scarlet sheet, is what appears to be the black form of an elephant lying on the ground.
The nineteenth century also brought paintings with really obscure historical references. Adrien Guignet’s Meeting Between Cambyses II and Psammetichus III, painted between 1835 and 1854, refers to the Battle of Pelusium, fought between these leaders of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire and the Kingdom of Egypt, respectively, in 525 BCE. Guignet envisaged some elephants being involved in the fight.
Alberto Pasini’s painting of The Caravan of the Shah of Persia from 1867 is another reference to Persian elephants: this superbly wide view of an extensive royal caravan crossing a desert plain includes a couple of elephants at the right.
The nineteenth century saw circuses in Europe become increasingly popular. As they were able to travel further and more quickly with heavy gear and animals, elephants came to many European towns and cities to perform in the circus ring.
One of Émile Friant’s earliest works is his 1881 painting of The Entrance of the Clowns, which shows the interior of the Big Top at the moment that the clowns, acrobats, and captive elephants arrive. The artist has carefully put the foreground into relatively sharp focus and detail, and left the background blurred and sketchy, as may have been influenced by photographic depth of focus.
My favourite painting of an elephant, though, comes from the India of Gustave Moreau’s imagination.
The Sacred Elephant (Péri) (1885-6) is a magnificent watercolour showing Moreau’s best-developed painting of a thoroughly Indian motif. The Indian elephant has a long history as a sacred animal, at the heart of Hindu cosmology in supporting and guarding the earth (echoed by Terry Pratchett’s cosmic model of his Discworld).
Traditionally, the elephant is the mount (vāhana) for Lakshmi, Indra, Indrani (Shachi), and Brihaspati – goddesses, apart from the last who is a sage. Indra’s mount is a white elephant named Airavata, and Indrani is the goddess of wrath and jealousy, so I suspect that Moreau intends the figure mounted on the elephant to represent Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity, and wife of Vishnu.
The elephant itself represents wisdom, divine knowledge, and royal power. It is walking in a shallow lake which is rich in exotic vegetation, including lotus and lilies, as the sun is setting. Surrounding the mounted figure are four winged angelic creatures.
The mounted goddess holds a stringed instrument, probably a sitar or near-relative, and is elaborately decorated. Although at first sight the angels might appear European, they too are drawn from the Indian sub-continent, and are richly embellished, apparently paying tribute to the goddess with flowers and a musical instrument.
Colonial powers also used elephants when hunting big game in countries like India, as seen in this painting which has been attributed to Briton Rivière, Tiger Hunt. Although of Huguenot descent, Rivière was British, and specialised in animals.
Probably at about the same time, the German animal artist Wilhelm Kuhnert painted Elephants on the Move, one of the first paintings of African elephants that I can find made in their natural environment, when the artist visited German East Africa.
Lovis Corinth’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony after Gustave Flaubert in 1908 is his second of this motif, the previous work dating from 1897.
This is based on Gustave Flaubert’s account La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, and focusses on a scene in which the Queen of Sheba appears in the saint’s visions. With her – and shown here – is a train consisting of elephant, camels, and naked women riding piebald horses. Corinth’s new Saint Anthony is a young man, and is surrounded by this outlandish circus of people and animals. In his left hand, he holds a heavy chain, and there is a skull in his right hand.
According to later recollections of the artist’s son Thomas, Corinth painted this from professional models in his studio on Berlin’s Handelstraße. What isn’t clear is whether he painted the elephant from life, probably in the Berlin Zoo, or from printed images.
My last painting brings us well into the twentieth century, with Franz Marc’s Elephant, Horse, Ox, Winter from 1913-14. Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) journal, and central member of the circle of artists formed around it. He was tragically killed in action at the Battle of Verdun just a couple of years later.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of so many of these paintings of elephants is how many show them in danger or conflict – purely as a result of what humans have made them do.