Konrad Gessner (Swiss, 1516-1575)
Hand-colored (watercolor) woodcut, 39 x 22.9 cm (15 3/8 x 9 in.), from:
Konrad Gessner, Historiae animalium...
Liber 1: De quadrupedibus viviparis, Zurich, 1551
The Getty Research Institute, 84-B13226
For centuries, Dürer's engraving above remained the only picture of the rhinoceros in Europe. Konrad Gessner, a Swiss natural historian, published a facsimile in his Historia Animalium, regarded to be the starting point of modern zoology.
Ernst Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, used this engraving as an example of how artists, before the advent of photography, were necessarily, always influenced by existing schemas even while they strive to record the truth. He noted that "The familiar will always remain the likely starting point for the rendering of the unfamiliar." Even the Dutch artists, the realists who supposedly drew from life, were known to make mistakes. (There is, for instance, an existing late 16th-century depiction of a beached whale with ears!)
According to documentary evidence, the King of Portugal received the rhinoceros as a gift from an Indian sultan in 1515. He then intended to send the creature, named Ganda, to the Pope, but the ship was wrecked before it reached its destination. The spots on its skin were purportedly caused by dermatitis suffered from being confined at the bottom of the ship during the 10-month voyage. Gombrich contends that Dürer, in rendering the rhinoceros, relied on second hand information (a sketch and an account by a Moravian painter from Portugal), which was coloured by Dürer's own conception of the mythical dragon and its armoured body.
(Special thanks to the Contessa for sending me material on the subject matter. Supplemented with Google.)