An exotic visitor to Paris: context and possible identities for Claude-Marie Dubufe’s portrait
An exotic visitor to Paris: context and possible identities for Claude-Marie Dubufe’s portrait
Fig. 4 / Auguste Couder,
Mehmet Ali Pasha, 1841, oil
on canvas, 93 x 75 cm, Palais
de Versailles.
Fig. 5 / Jacques Raymond
Brascassat, Le Passage de la
girafe à Arany-le-Duc, 1827,
oil on canvas, 45 x 55 cm,
Beaune, Musée des BeauxArts.
With his light brown skin, sharp features and jetblack hair, the physiognomic traits of the sitter are
not at odds with the imagined physical appearance
of a young Greek male. It is not, however, so straightforward to make this type of generalized statement with
regards to Hassan due to a lack of clarity regarding
the giraffe-keeper’s ethnicity. Period reports are often
contradictory, which has also led to confusion, or at least
a lack of precision, amongst modern commentators.
Contemporary newspapers tended to call Zarafa’s
attendants “nègres”9 and imagery inspired by the giraffe’s
visit, whether paintings, prints, pamphlets, crockery or
porcelain, usually, though not always, depicted black
attendants. For example, Jacques Raymond Brascassat’s
image of Zarafa walking to Paris with her entourage
(fig. 5) shows only black attendants. However, racial
categories in France at this time were neither fixed nor
stable, and “nègre” may have been a generalized term
suggestive of a person from the African continent,
rather than specifically someone of black skin colour.
Yet, despite the generally imprecise newspaper reports,
there were occasional attempts at differentiating the
various ethnic origins of the giraffe’s handlers. On 4
July 1827, for example, the Moniteur Universel called
Atir “un nègre de Darfour”, whereas Hassan is described
as a “un Maure du Sennaar”.10 In the expense accounts
relating to the expedition, Atir is classified, in relation
to Hassan, as “le nègre, son aide”, implying therefore that
Hassan was not black.11 Finally, the correspondence of
Saint-Hilaire frequently mentions Zarafa’s attendants,
with Hassan described as an “arabe”. In a letter dated
24 May 1827, for example, Saint-Hillaire writes of
Hassan being an “arabe”, Atir a “nègre” and Youssuf,
the Franch-Arabic translator, a “négrillon”.12 As SaintHillaire accompanied the party from Marseille to
Paris, and therefore knew the giraffe-keepers better
than any other contemporary observer, we can accept,
with some reservations, that Hassan was likely Arab,
or at least “arab-looking” to Saint-Hillaire, and
therefore not ethnically incompatible with the man in
Dubufe’s portrait.


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