This piece depicts not a genuine prodigy, but rather the world's
most famous "gaff" or fake. P. T. Barnum created quite a stir
in the 1840's when he advertised the acquisition of a genuine
mermaid caught off the coast of faraway 'Fegee.' In newspapers and on huge
banners he showed beautiful bare-chested mermaids cavorting in the waves,
and huge crowds lined up to see the titillating attraction. Even when
the supposedly lovely creature was unveiled and proved to be the
upper half of a gruesomely petrified monkey attached to the lower
portions of a large fish, the crowds still flocked to see it.
Barnum wasn't the first to exhibit such a taxidermy creation, but he was the
most successful in promoting it. Perhaps hoping to mimic his success or
pay tribute to the great man, generations of showmen after Barnum acquired
their own Fiji mermaids, so that now a collection of oddities isn't complete
Here I have contrasted the beautiful and the hideous by placing
Barnum's mermaid in a situation borrowed from a Raphael painting.
The woman who once so calmly held a unicorn must now contend with
an entirely different sort of mythical creature.