One-of-a-kind Rosa Bonheur

The Artdog Images of Interest

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, 1860, photo by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri

This has been my week to just miss anniversaries. Earlier this week I missed K9 Veterans Day. This time it’s the anniversary of my subject’s birth: Rosa Bonheur (born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur) was born March 16, 1822.

In the course of her 77 years, Bonheur became the most famous woman painter of her century, won a long list of honors for her artwork including the Legion of Honor, and shocked a great many sensibilities with her highly original lifestyle.

She was literally born a rule-breaker. Her family, inspired by her father, were Saint-Simonians, followers of a radical-for-that-period socialist political philosophy that held, among other things, that men and women should be considered equals, and all class distinctions should be abolished (of course the group soon split, with one faction unable to accept the idea of female equality). 

Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849, was Rosa’s first “big breakout” painting. She had exhibited at the Salon before, but this one was a commission by the state, after she’d won her first gold medal at the Salon.

Rosa never formally studied art (the École des Beaux-Arts didn’t even accept women at that time). Luckily for Rosa and the world, her father Oscar-Raymond Bonheur was an artist. He taught all four of his children to be artists, in the tradition of the family workshop. They helped him with some of his commissions, and later helped each other as well. 

Rosa’s brother Isidore was a noted sculptor; Rosa exhibited sculpture when she was young, but according to her Art History Archive biography she “did not want to overshadow” Isidore. Apparently she had no such compunctions about overshadowing her other siblings Auguste and Juliette; like her, they were primarily known as animal-painters, or animalières

The Horse Fair, 1852-55, is Rosa’s most famous painting. It is an enormous canvas, with a complex composition (she called it her own Parthenon Freize). It secured her reputation as a master of her genre and of painting in general. It now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Rosa may not have studied art in a traditional school, but she definitely studied animal anatomy at schools for veterinarians, and at slaughterhouses in Paris, despite the fact that those were not a “suitable” place for a woman. She even got special permission from the police to wear a smock and trousers when she went there. 

Lion at Rest, 1880, is one of several lion paintings by Rosa Bonheur. The subject is likely of one of her pet lions.

In her lifetime she owned many animals, including several lions, an otter, and of course horses. She received many commissions, including from the French Empress Eugénie (who visited her at her home near Fontainebleu to give her the Legion of Honor). 

Highland Raid, 1860, is one of Rosa’s better-known pieces that stemmed from a trip she took to Scotland (she also met Queen Victoria on that trip). The title does not mean the shepherds are stealing these animals–it uses the old Scottish word “raid” meaning “road.”

Rosa never married, although she established her studio in Paris with her companion Nathalie Micas, and later in life she toured the United States and lived in France with a younger artist named Anna Klumpke from Boston, who painted her portrait the year before she died, wrote a definitive biography of her, and to whom she left her entire estate.

The Monarch of the Herd, 1867, was one of the paintings sold by her estate after her death. She may have studied red deer at her home near Fontainebleu.

By all accounts, Rosa lived life on her own terms. As in the story about the Paris police and the dress code of the day, she was not afraid to adjust the rules to suit her own needs; while feminism was not a major theme in her artwork, it most definitely was, in the way she lived her life

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikipedia for the photo by Disdéri, and the images of Ploughing in the Nivernais, and The Monarch of the Herd. I am indebted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the image of The Horse Fair, to Art History Archive for Lion at Rest, and to the National Museum of Women in the Arts for Highland Raid. 

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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