The First Giraffe in France

In 1825, a baby giraffe was taken from her mother and shipped by camel, by ship, and on foot to Paris as a gift from the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt to King Charles X. She was called “la Belle Africaine” or “la girafe,” and has since been called Zarafa, which is the Arabic word from which we derive the word "giraffe." Her arrival caused a sensation across the country, and fashion turned to giraffe-mania as the French used giraffe imagery for everything from hair styles to wallpaper.

Along with inspiring some eccentric fashion, and a whole host of commemorative porcelain, accessories, combs, soap, and fans, Zarafa also made her mark on art. A rise in the popularity of animal sculpture by artists like Antoine-Louis Barye was partly inspired by observing Zarafa and the other newly arrived creatures at the Jardin des Plantes. Nicolas Hüet, the official painter for the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle at the Paris menagerie, perhaps captured Zarafa most beautifully in luminous watercolor, with a groom resting alongside her. Caricatures of Charles X, who had a rather long neck, sometimes depicted him as an awkward giraffe. One of the anthropomorphic king being wrangled by a member of the clergy read: “La plus grande bête qu’on ait jamais vue” (“The biggest beast that we’ve ever seen”). In 1827, Honoré de Balzac satirized a Paris visit by a group of Osage from North America, imagining a discourse between the indigenous people and the giraffe as a critique on Charles X. (It’s worth noting that in the 19th century, human zoos in Europe exhibited “exotic” people as well as animals.)

Read about Zarafa and see examples of the art she inspired at Hyperallergic. -via Metafilter


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