Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was a commercially successful painter in an era when few women were able to pursue a career in the arts. Her paintings fell squarely within the Realist school of the mid-nineteenth century, and her depictions of animals and rural scenes are still widely appreciated for their accuracy and artistic skill. Bonheur's belief in women's equality and her personal habits, which included dressing in men's clothing and smoking cigars, marked her as a precursor of early feminists.
Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France on March 16, 1822. A career in the arts seemed predetermined for Bonheur. Her father, Raymond, was a professional painter who specialized in portraits and realistic landscapes. He also supported his daughter's inclination toward artistic pursuits, teaching her to draw from an early age. Rosa Bonheur reveled in exploring the rural area surrounding her home in Bordeaux, and she exhibited an intense love of animals from her earliest years. Not surprisingly, her first drawings were of the farm and domestic animals she encountered near her home.
Raymond Bonheur moved his family to Paris in 1829 and established a studio which doubled as the family home. He joined the Saint-Simonian movement, a religious organization which advocated the equality of women in 1830, and lived apart from his family until 1832. Shortly after her father's return, Bonheur's mother Sophie died, and the family was left to survive without her income. The death of her mother changed Bonheur's prospects drastically, as her father was now obliged to enroll her in a trade school devoted to teaching young women marketable skills, such as sewing. Bonheur proved a rebellious pupil, however, and was expelled from the school after a very short time. Bonheur's father then enrolled her in a boarding school for wealthy young women but, once again, she was unwilling to submit to school discipline and routine, and was soon back with her family.
Following her second expulsion from school in 1835, her father decided to give Bonheur artistic training in his studio. The young girl proved an immediate success and applied herself vigorously to her studies. Bonheur's initial artistic training was typical for her era. It included copying great works of art and making studies of landscapes and animals. Her father's approach to art, which stressed realistic depiction of scenes, was quickly adopted by the young pupil. She constantly strove to improve her drawing and painting skills to enhance the accuracy of her work. Her skill was apparent almost from the start, and she was able to sell some of her paintings to older art students, even in the early stages of her training. By 1836, Bonheur had emerged as one of her father's more promising pupils. She accompanied him while he painted a commissioned portrait of a wealthy young woman named Nathalie Micas. Rosa and Micas developed a friendship during the portrait sittings which would last throughout their lives. In addition to her training as a painter, Bonheur excelled at the creation of small bronzes of animals. Her approach to realism is shown in the 1840 work Rabbits Nibbling Carrots, in which she took pains to render the softness of the rabbits' fur by painting it using hundreds of fine lines. By her late teens, Bonheur's work had improved enough that she was ready to participate in her first public showing.
Bonheur submitted several paintings and small sculptures for inclusion in the prestigious Paris Salon art show of 1841. Her works met with the approval of both critics and the public. Shortly after the show, the Bonheur family moved to a new apartment in Paris, where they were able to keep a small menagerie including ducks, rabbits, quail, squirrels, and sheep. These pets provided Bonheur with models for further artworks, and her skill continued to improve. She participated in shows throughout the 1840s. Her painting Cows and Bulls of the Cantal was awarded a gold medal at the 1848 show. She subsequently received a large commission from the French government to create a painting depicting plowing using animal power. The resulting Plowing in the Nivernais, which depicted two teams of oxen plowing a field, was again hailed as an artistic success. Bonheur's father died in 1849 and she was left on her own, a circumstance that prompted much personal and professional development.
Unlike many artists, Bonheur's commercial success and public acceptance were assured from the early stages of her career. Her personal habits were quite controversial, however. Her desire to better understand the physiology of animals led her to visit the slaughterhouses of Paris, which forbade the presence of women on their premises. To circumvent this prohibition, Bonheur cut her hair very short and dressed in men's clothing, a mode of dress which quickly became her regular style. Eventually, Bonheur secured the official approval of the city of Paris to work and travel in men's clothing within the city limits. She also developed the traditionally male habit of smoking cigars. Although she never married, Bonheur's friendship with Micas continued to deepen and the two women lived together. Bonheur's personal habits aroused public curiosity, but she consistently maintained that her behavior was itself a form of performance art whereby she demonstrated that impersonating a man was the only means available to a woman wishing to secure social and professional equality. Similarly, Bonheur never discussed her sexual preferences and such questions were not asked of her given the prevailing mores of the era. As such, she has secured listing in some modern directories of gay and lesbian historical figures, although the true nature of her relationship with Micas was never made clear.
Bonheur's playful attitude regarding her public persona was exemplified by her reception of an 1857 portrait of herself by Louis Dubufe. In the painting, Dubufe portrayed Bonheur in a standing position, with her arm resting on a table. Bonheur was pleased with the portrait but painted over the table, replacing it with the forequarters and head of a large, red bull. The result was a whimsical painting which summarized Bonheur's art as well as her personality. In fact, when Dubufe sold the painting to a collector and explained Bonheur's changes, the collector, who paid 8000 francs for the painting, sent Bonheur a 7000 franc bonus for her input.
Bonheur succeeded her father as director of the School of Drawing for Young Girls, a position in which she was able to encourage young women to pursue artistic careers. She also began work on a painting depicting horses, which was destined to become her most famous work. To prepare sketches for the painting, Bonheur frequented the stables of the Paris Omnibus Company where she received ample opportunity to watch large draft horses at work and rest. Finally, in 1853, her work was finished and The Horse Fair was the sensation of the Salon. The painting sold for the very high sum of 40,000 francs in 1855, and attracted the favorable attention of Queen Victoria of England, who invited Bonheur for a royal visit. The painting was eventually purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it is currently housed. Bonheur's continuing commercial success enabled her to purchase a large chateau in the French town of By, to which she and Micas moved in 1860. The chateau included spacious grounds enclosed by a wall. Bonheur was able to maintain what amounted to a personal zoological garden, including dogs, Icelandic ponies, deer, gazelles, monkeys, cattle, yak, boar, and a lion. These animals became the subjects of many of Bonheur's works and provided her with great joy.
Bonheur painted animals and pastoral scenes throughout the remainder of her career, and continued to enjoy commercial and critical favor. She became the first female recipient of the French Legion of Honor in 1865. However, the award could only be presented to her when Emperor Louis-Napoleon was out of town, because he opposed the bestowal of this award on a woman. She later received a rosette denoting a second Legion of Honor and was very proud of this recognition, wearing her medals prominently when sitting for a portrait by Anna Klumpke in 1899. Bonheur continued to score artistic success until the time of her death. One of her more famous works depicted the American celebrity Buffalo Bill Cody, whose wild west show visited France in 1889. Bonheur delighted in painting the show's wildlife and cast, which included authentic Western cowboys, Mexican vaqueros, and Native Americans. She remained active following the death of Nathalie Micas later in 1889. At the time of her own death in By, France on May 25, 1899, Bonheur's studio contained more than 1800 studies and works, both finished and unfinished.
A Place in History
Bonheur represented, in many ways, the epitome of the Realist school which dominated European painting in the mid-nineteenth century. She did not incorporate the more modern approach of the Impressionists, although she certainly must have been aware of their efforts. Indeed, while the Impressionists struggled to get their works admitted to the Salon in the 1870s, Bonheur's more representational works continued to find great favor. Her intention was never to interpret images in a new or innovative manner, but rather to render them as realistically as possible while bringing out their intrinsic visual qualities. Although her art is less "modern," and therefore less well remembered than that of her Impressionist contemporaries, Bonheur's attitude toward the role of women in society was quite modern indeed. Her brand of feminism stressed empowering women to occupy social and economic niches, such as that of being a professional artist. At the same time, her attitude reflected little of the Victorian moralism that characterized the women's movement during her era. Her career as a painter set her apart as a pioneer of women's empowerment but her activities as an art educator, and the example she set in her personal life, may in the final analysis have had a more lasting effect on European art than her paintings.
Further Reading on Rosa Bonheur
Berger, Klaus, Collier's Encyclopedia, P.F. Collier, 1997.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.
The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography, edited by Jennifer S. Uglow, Continuum, 1982.
The Good Housekeeping Women's Almanac, edited by Barbara McDowell and Hana Umlauf, Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1977.
Larousse Dictionary of Women, edited by Melanie Parry, Larousse, 1996.
Turner, Robyn Montana, Rosa Bonheur, Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
School Arts, December 1995.