Travels with Zarafa

Last week, our friends at the San Francisco Zoo welcomed a zooborn baby giraffe. Today, we introduce you to our resident giraffe, Zarafa, who is pictured on a 19th-century bedcover featured in the special exhibition From the Exotic to the Mystical: Textile Treasures from the Permanent Collection (on view until August 4, 2013). In this blog post, Zarafa shares her fascinating history as she takes us on a fantastical journey across the world.

Bedcover, ca. 1830. 2010.10

Bedcover, ca. 1830. United States. Cotton; block-print and appliqué. Gift of Mrs. Mary Swaine Morgan. 2010.10

Bonjour, hello! Enchanté! My name is Zarafa. I am so pleased to make your acquaintance.

The entrance to the exhibition From the Exotic to the Mystical

It has been many years since I have enjoyed such charming company. Come and visit me in the Lonna and Marshall Wais Gallery on the second floor at the de Young, where the Chinese Prince has assembled his court. Please make sure to greet my dear friend Elephant who attends the emperor.

The Audience of the Emperor (or The Chinese Prince's Audience), 1722–1723

J.B. Blin de Fontenay, 1648–1729. The Audience of the Emperor (or The Chinese Prince's Audience), 1722–1723. France, Beauvais. Wool and silk; slit- and interlocked-tapestry weave. Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Collection. 59.49.1

This gallery full of marvelous and exotic animals feels just like my home in the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes. When I arrived in Paris in 1827 the scientists of France, or naturalists as they were then called, were absolutely fascinated by foreign visitors. Giraffes, like me, were particularly popular.

Did you know that in Europe, giraffes were once thought to be imaginary, like unicorns, sphinxes, and dragons? Moi! A figment of the imagination! Possiblement this air of mystery made me the most popular animal in the menagerie.... mais en realité it was my charm.

Eh bien, now may I introduce you to my longtime companion, Atir?

Zarafa and Atir (detail)

Bedcover (detail), ca. 1830. United States. Cotton; block-print and appliqué. Gift of Mrs. Mary Swaine Morgan. 2010.10

Atir is from Sudan. In the spring of 1826 dear Atir joined me in Alexandria on a very important diplomatic mission. Two years earlier, I’d left my birthplace in Ethiopia on the orders of Muhammad Ali, the Turkish viceroy of Egypt, to befriend Charles X, the King of France. Atir and a man named Hassan joined me on the final legs of my long journey across the Mediterranean Sea to the ports of Marseille, and finally on foot to Paris to meet the king.

The arrival of Zarafa

Our delegation disembarked in France at the port of Marseille, where we met the delightful naturalist Étienne Geoffrey Sainte-Hilaire. Sainte-Hilaire, a famous and very intelligent man, introduced us to the French people and escorted us on a long promenade from Marseille to our new home: the Jardin des Plantes in Paris!

Ah, Paris! Malheureusement, King Charles X never accepted Muhammad Ali as an ally, but the king and all the people of France adopted me as one of their very own. In the spring of 1827 I was fêted throughout the French countryside, and in the summer of 1827 I became a star in Paris. Tout le monde came to greet me and, with famous cordialité, I greeted tout le monde.

I became so famous that Nicolas Hüet, the official artist for the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle de la Ménagerie, Paris, painted my formal portrait.

Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt, 1827

Nicolas Hüet, the Younger (1770–1828). Study of the Giraffe Given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt, 1827. The Morgan Library and Museum

Very soon my likeness was reproduced everywhere: on dishes, textiles, folding fans, and even desserts! Atir often posed with me in these portraits. We both missed Hassan who had returned to Africa, but Atir enjoyed the attention I brought him. He even gained a reputation of his own among the ladies of Paris.

Ah, les femmes de Paris! Not the least bit jealous of the attention I commanded, they honored my beauty by imitating my style, a trend that was quickly copied by all of the ladies of Europe. The coiffure à la girafe—hair propped high on the head in tribute to my horn-like “ossicones”— became all the rage. A pink heart or locket suspended from a narrow ribbon around the neck—called the “necklace a la Girafe”—imitated the protective amulet of Koranic verses that I wore. And the season’s most fashionable colors were, of course, “belly of Giraffe,” “Giraffe in love,” and “Giraffe in exile.”

A giraffe inspired hairdo

Women all over the world learned of “the beautiful Egyptian” and paid their respects. One of my favorite tributes, a bedcover, hangs next to my friend the emperor in the textile gallery at the de Young. Tales of my fame made my image popular all over the world. This lovely bedcover was created in America from a popular French textile and depicts me resting with Atir under a palm tree.

Bedcover, ca. 1830. 2010.10

Imagine! Moi, la belle Américaine! Bel et bien, those were the days. It has been so good to see again such lovely and adoring faces! Merci beaucoup for visiting me! Au revoir!

Don’t miss Zarafa and her friends, currently on view in From the Exotic to the Mystical: Textile Treasures from the Permanent Collection through August 4, 2013.

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