Sketch of Hansen by Rembrandt, chalk and charcoal on paper, 1637 (Albertina in Vienna via

Sketch of Hansen by Rembrandt, chalk and charcoal on paper, 1637 (Albertina in Vienna via

Hansken the Elephant

NOVEMBER 9, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Hansken the Elephant

Hansken, a touring elephant, died Nov. 9, 1655, at the age of 25. Hansken was brought to Europe from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at a young age and spent most of her life giving performances in Amsterdam. She seems to have been the only elephant in Europe at the time. She was trained to do such tricks as wave a flag, pick up money off the ground or out of her trainer’s pockets, engage in swordplay, and even pray to Whomever pachyderms pray to. An engraved broadside survives from ca 1640 that was probably intended as an advertisement for Hansken and shows her doing a number of her tricks (second image). Rembrandt saw Hansken in 1637 and made several sketches of the animal. We show one that is in the Albertina in Vienna (first image) and another in the British Museum (third image).

In the 1650s, Hansken was taken on tour to Italy, where she was seen and drawn again by the great Stefano della Bella, who had earlier designed the frontispiece to Galileo's Dialogo (1632), and who had first drawn Hansken in Amsterdam in 1647. Several of della Bella’s quick sketches came to auction in 1975, and they occasionally crop up in art dealer catalogs, such as our fourth image, which was sold and is no longer on the market. Hansken died in Florence, and her skeleton was preserved and is on display there in the Museo della Specola.

Last fall (2019), the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam announced a forthcoming exhibition: Hansken: Rembrandt’s Elephant, scheduled to open in May 2021. It is not known if the pandemic has altered the schedule, but the announcement is still up on the website of CODART, the consortium of historians of Netherlandish art, where you can read more about it.

It is surprising how many historical performing elephants are known; Wikipedia even has a separate page for them all, “List of individual elephants”, and there are over 50 names on the list. Hansken is the first to appear as a Scientist of the Day, but in the email anniversary blog that I also write, I have discussed two others: Hanno, who was given to Pope Leo X in 1514 and painted by Raphael, and Jumbo, who performed for P.T. Barnum and was then stuffed after being killed by a train in 1885.  I thought once about doing a notice on Mary, an elephant in America who was convicted of killing her keeper in Tennessee in 1916, and in punishment was hanged by the neck from a rail-car derrick, but I decided that this was more revealing of human stupidity than I care to make public in my anniversary notices.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to