Wildlife Conservation: Meredith Martin on Jean-Baptiste Oudry at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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BEFORE BARBARO or Dolly the cloned sheep, there was Clara, an Indian rhinoceros who reigned as the biggest celebrity animal in mid-eighteenth-century Europe. Escorted by her Dutch owner, Clara toured the continent between 1741 and 1758, enchanting kings, commoners, and artists alike due to her exotic pedigree, surprisingly docile nature, and ability to slake an Enlightenment thirst for firsthand observation, in this case of an animal that had not been seen in Europe in nearly two hundred years.

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During a 1749 engagement at Paris's Saint Germain fair, an annual Dionysian event improbably held during Lent, Clara was visited by the French artist and noted workaholic Jean-Baptiste Oudry, who scrupulously studied her form before embarking on an enormous, life-size rendering of the fabled creature. Oudry's ambition was threefold: to offer a corrective to the prevailing, but anatomically inaccurate, artistic view of the animal in Albrecht Durer's Rhinoceros woodcut from 1515; to solidify his reputation over Alexandre-Francois Desportes and Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin as the preeminent animal painter of his day; and to cash in on the consumer craze for all things Clara, including Meissen porcelain figurines and what one countess described as ribbons "a la rhinoceros."

The result, an audacious yet disarmingly sensitive portrait, forms the centerpiece of "Oudry's Painted Menagerie," an exhibition organized by Mary Morton and Scott Schaefer of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (where the show opens this month), in association with the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Germany, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Oudry's Rhinoceros appears alongside ten other life-size paintings of exotic animals--among them a cassowary, a hyena, and a mufflon--that inhabited the French royal menagerie at Versailles. Also included are twenty animal drawings, many of which were executed from life in Oudry's elegant, preferred method of black and white chalk on blue paper. A separate section, entitled "Rhino-mania," displays decorative art objects inspired by Clara, and pits Oudry's beast against competing visions by Durer, Pietro Longhi, and others.

Originally commissioned by Louis XV's chief surgeon, La Peyronie, the menagerie paintings were suddenly left without a buyer when La Peyronie died in 1747. Three years later, the ever-enterprising Oudry offered them (at a reduced price) to his loyal client the duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, who eagerly snapped them up. These spirited animal portraits, which evince Oudry's particular genius at melding expert illusionism with a palpable expressive force, are now part of the Staatliches Museum Schwerin, which enjoys the largest holdings of Oudry's work in the world.

Oudry's Rhinoceros has a story almost as fabled as that of Clara herself. In the mid-nineteenth century, the work was removed from its stretcher and placed in storage, where it remained for 150 years. In 2002, the Getty's head paintings conservator, Mark Leonard, and curator of paintings, Schaefer, learned about the work while in Germany to seek out conservation partnerships. For the five years since then, Leonard and his staff have been working painstakingly to restore Rhinoceros and two other Oudry canvases. When the exhibition opens, their technical prowess will be on display as much as the paintings themselves. (The entire nail-biting restoration process was even filmed by The Exorcist director William Friedkin; sections of the documentary will be screened in conjunction with the exhibition.) A preview was provided last January when Leonard moved Rhinoceros to a top-lit room in the Getty's East Pavilion, where he applied a final coat of varnish while museum visitors watched. …