Gesture & Bad Giraffe Taxedermy

Gesture is an essential skill for artists, and especially taxidermists, to master.

19th century Paris had a giraffe. Not just any giraffe – a beloved giraffe. This giraffe, dubbed “Zarafa”, was adored by the people of Paris.

Giraffe wallpapers were printed, and giraffe yellow quickly became one of the most important colors in fashionable Paris. Even hairdos were created to imitate giraffe horns.

A woman with giraffe-inspired hairdo from The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions &c. Third Series, Volume 10 (courtesy Internet Archive)

Zarafa was so loved by Parisians that when she passed away, it was decided that the giraffe should be taxidermied. 

The art of taxidermy requires its practitioners to have a nuanced understanding of gesture in order to accurately capture the “feel” of the animal being stuffed. When an animal is taxidermied, bones are removed and essentially a simplified sculpture is inserted in their place under a preserved skin.

The gesture of the underlying armature becomes paramount to the structure of the animal and is mostly recreated without the benefit of a skeleton.  

The Parisian taxidermist who was chosen for the task of stuffing Zarafa after her death had a superior understanding of giraffe gesture. This is likely because this famous and well-loved giraffe was the first living giraffe to touch French soil, and thus afforded many opportunities for observing giraffe gesture by both the public at large and by taxidermists in particular.

The 19th century French artist Eugene Delacroix, of “Liberty Leading the People” fame, visited the Jardin de Plantes to see their stuffed giraffes in 1847. He was particularly upset by the way most of the giraffes were preserved (with the exception of the famous Paris-dwelling giraffe of 1827, “Zarafa”) that he dedicated a portion of his journal to the incompetency of giraffe taxidermy (Delacroix wrongly assumed the giraffe was male). 

“And finally the giraffe; Levaillant’s specimens are here, all patched up and pieced together; and the famous animal of 1827 himself, who was the admiration of all beholders during his lifetime and gave pleasure to thousands of idlers. He has now paid his debt to nature with a death as obscure as his entrance into the world was glorious. Here he is, at all events, as stiff and clumsy as nature made him. The other giraffes, which came into these catacombs before he did, have been set with their necks held proudly erect. They were obviously stuffed by people who had never seen the creature alive and were unable to imagine that curious forward thrust of the head that is so characteristic of the living animal.”

You can see that Delacroix’s criticisms were focused completely on gesture. It was that the earlier giraffe specimens were nobelized that made the gesture inaccurate – they had their heads held in a way that was not nearly awkward enough to look or feel like a living giraffe. Only Zarafa was stuffed accurately to Delacroix’s appreciative eye for gesture with a “clumsy” feel and “forward thrust of the head”.

Today, one can simply type into a search engine “bad taxidermy” and see all sorts of fumbled attempts at the artform. There wasn’t as broad of ability to shame poor attempts when Paris’ earliest giraffe taxidermy experiments were undertaken. And maybe those particular practitioners were actually quite good, but did not have the benefit of studying the gesture of giraffes from life. Instead they were doomed from the beginning by working from dead, gesture-less specimens brought back from travels abroad.

But for those taxidermists out there that would like to create the most believable feeling for their viewers, drawing the animals and mastering their gestures when they are living will give you every advantage for capturing lifelike effects in your works. After all, you wouldn’t want your failed attempts at gesture to be memorialized in a famous artist’s journal for all eternity.

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You can read Delacroix’s scathing review of Giraffe taxidermy on page 58 of his journals.

To learn more about the famous Parisian giraffe, read this fascinating telling of Zarafa’s story.

Want to learn more about how to draw, including capturing your subject’s gesture? Check out our free art lesson plans here.

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