Feature

Oudry’s Painted Menagerie

Oudry’s depiction of animals transcends mere detailed realism.

The pantheon of world'“famous animals is relatively small, said Meredith Martin in ArtForum. But 'œbefore Barbaro or Dolly the cloned sheep, there was Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who reigned as the biggest celebrity animal in mid'“18th'“century Europe.' Clara was the prize specimen in the menagerie of Louis XV of France, and none of her species had been seen on the continent for nearly 200 years. A 'œconsumer craze for all things Clara' has left us with countless knickknacks, from porcelain figurines to ribbons, that celebrate the noble beast. But her portrait was captured for all time by the artist Jean'“Baptiste Oudry, 'œwho scrupulously studied her form before embarking on an enormous, life'“size rendering.' The Getty Museum's new exhibition of 10 Oudry works includes several others that testify to his 'œparticular genius at melding expert illusionism with a palpable expressive force.' Viewers might see in his preening cranes a wry comment on court life at Versailles, or identify the 'œimperious toucan' with Louis XV himself.

But the star of the show remains Clara, said Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times. This is surely 'œthe finest portrait of a rhinoceros that you are ever likely to encounter, for what that's worth.' Frankly, I'm not sure it's worth all that much. Oudry married the eye of an expert anatomist and the design sense of a decorator. But, though there's much in these paintings for connoisseurs, I fear museumgoers will find most of these works 'œa bit dull.' The truest work of art in the bunch isn't the portrait of Clara but 'œa truly ravishing painting of a dead crane,' hung by its feet and splayed open for study. Here Oudry treats mortality in dark, stunning passages that echo not only the finest examples of the still'“life genre but some of Caravaggio's moving crucifixion scenes.

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