Famous French animal painter of the 19th century, particularly recognized in England and the United States, Rosa Bonheur led a life that was both eccentric and conventional, a life of freedom!

Consuelo Fould, Rosa Bonheur, 1892-1893. Leed Art Gallery

Marie-Rosalie Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux. She had a rural and golden childhood in the countryside, at Château de Grimont, where her interest in rural life and animals was born.

Following family misadventures, Mr and Mrs Bonheur found themselves broke and had to leave for Paris. Her father, Raimond Bonheur, a modest landscape painter, abandoned his family in misery.  He is also the one who trained Rosa in painting and pushed her to become a free woman.  For the anecdote, her father also allowed her to raise a sheep on the balcony of the sixth floor of their apartment!! This paternal encouragement is not insignificant at a time when the professionalisation and recognition of women in art is far from being achieved.

Eugène Disderi, Photograph of Rosa Bonheur, 1861-1864. Getty Center

At the age of 13, Rosa gave up her work as a seamstress to devote herself entirely to painting and drawing. She worked as an apprentice in workshops, which then played a key role in the conquest of the right to artistic training for women (it was not until 1897, following the action of relentless feminists, that women were admitted to the School of Fine Arts). Rosa went to the Louvre where she was allowed to copy the works she liked, with the exception of nudes, which remain forbidden to women (that explains why female painters have devoted themselves more to still lifes and landscapes), she also did her first landscape studies in the Bois de Boulogne.

In 1837, Raymond Bonheur received a commission from a Mr. Micas who wanted a portrait of his daughter Nathalie. It is love at first sight between the two girls: Rosa is 14, Nathalie is 12; they will be separated only by Nathalie’s death in 1889.

Nathalie Micas and Rosa Bonheur in Nice in 1882

From 1841 – she is 19 years old – Rosa exhibits every year at the Paris Salon. In 1848, thanks to the painting Beef and Bulls, a Cantal breed, she was awarded a gold medal. This was followed by more frequent commissions and better-paid, both from the State and from wealthy amateurs.

Beef and Bulls, a Cantal breed, Rosa bonheur, 1848.

The State also ordered, for 3,000 francs, a ploughing scene: Le Labourage Nivernais, which was her first major work, a challenge and a triumph: its large dimensions (1.34 m x 2.60 m), were considered exorbitant for a painting done by a woman who measured only 1.50 m! This painting was to earn her both a prize and an association with George Sand, it was also presented at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889.

Le Labourage Nivernais,Rosa Bonheur, 1849. Orsay Museum.

Afin de mieux étudier les animaux et perfectionner ses connaissances anatomiques, Rosa Bonheur assistait aux foires aux bestiaux, n’hésitant pas à visiter les abattoirs, ou à disséquer des carcasses qu’elle achetait chez son boucher. Cela justifiait pour elle le port du pantalon, elle affirmait: “Quel ennui d’être limité dans ses gestes quand on est une fille !” » En 1852, elle obtient donc auprès de  la préfecture de police l’autorisation de porter des pantalons. Cette ‘’demande de travestissement’’ ne sera abrogée qu’en… 2013 !

In order to better study animals and improve her anatomical knowledge, Rosa Bonheur attended livestock fairs, not hesitating to visit slaughterhouses, or to dissect carcasses she bought from her butcher. A good excuse for her to wear trousers, she said: “What a bore to be limited in her gestures when you’re a girl!” “In 1852, she obtained permission from the police prefecture to wear trousers. This “request for transvestism” will not be repealed until… 2013!

” Permission for cross-dressing granted to Rosa Bonheur” Paris, May 12, 1852 We, Prefect of Police, […] Authorize the young lady Rosa Bonheur living in Paris, rue … No. 320 to dress as a man; for health reasons, she cannot, under this cross-dressing, appear at shows, balls and other meeting places open to the public. The present authorization is valid for six months only, starting from this day. “

Non-conformist and transgressing the (then) agreed codes of femininity, Rosa Bonheur refuses to get married, she will live with her childhood friend Nathalie Micas, she wears short hair, smokes cigars and rides a horse, not as an Amazon, but as a man.

Rosa Bonheur in By

In 1853, a gigantic painting (2.44 m x 5.06 m), The Horse Market, earned Rosa Bonheur international success and praise, which however reduced her talent to qualities that can only be masculine:

“It’s really a man’s painting, nervous, solid, full of honesty. »

“She makes art seriously, and we can treat her like a man. “Théophile Gautier.

Le marché aux chevaux, 1852-1855. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Rosa travels to England with her painting and seduces her interlocutors with her original but pleasant manners. She now has her dealers, an international audience, and enough money to continue doing what she loves: celebrating animals and describing in her realistic style the work in the fields and rural life in France.

In 1860, Rosa Bonheur moved to the Château de By on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau, where she had a very large workshop built and set up spaces for her animals: mouflons, deer, hinds, wild boars, sheep, horses, oxen, dogs, and even a couple of lions, the male in a cage, the female “Fatma” in the wild.

Rosa Bonheur’s Workshop, Château de By, Thoméry (Seine et Marne)

In 1865, she was the first woman to be promoted Officer of the Legion of Honour, which was awarded to her by Empress Eugenie. This unleashed the fury of writers for whom it is a “usurpation“.

In 1889, shortly after the death of Nathalie Micas, Colonel Cody, the legendary “Buffalo Bill”, passing through France with his cowboys and Indians for the Universal Exhibition, came to see her in By. He is a fervent supporter of the women’s vote and wants to get to know the little “Frenchy” who describes her great outdoors so well.

Rosa Bonheur Sitting With Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Show Indians
Portrait of Col. William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill”, Rosa Bonheur, 1889, Whitney Gallery of Western Art Collection.

After this meeting, which was much commented by the press, Anna Klumpke, a young American interpreter and painter, accompanied to France a horse breeder from Wyoming who wished to congratulate Rosa Bonheur. Anna Klumpke will stay with Rosa and live with her. She becomes her universal legatee when Rosa passed 1899, and will become her universal legatee. Rosa dies without having completed her last large-format painting, La Foulaison, which can be seen on this canvas by Anna Klumpke:

Rosa Bonheur, Anna Klumpke, 1898. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Oddly enough, despite all her eccentricities and counter-current ideas, Rosa Bonheur has never caused a scandal. She was not an innovator, she painted many animals and deviated from the successive modern currents, all the same… Respect!

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