9 Things to Know About This Pivotal Painter
French artist Rosa Bonheur was generally accepted to be the most famous female artist (if not the most famous artist) of her day. We look into her life and times to discover the reasons behind her exceptional popularity and fame. We get to know the prominent painter and sculptor much better by sharing interesting insights about her background and biography as well.
A Family of Artists
If such a thing was possible, no one would be more likely to have art mapped onto their DNA than artist Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899). She was born to a piano teacher mother and an artist father with a portrait and landscape painting business. Oscar-Raymond Bonheur encouraged all four of his children, starting with his eldest daughter Rosa, to pursue art when it became obvious they had talents to nurture.
Rosa’s three other siblings eventually developed into artists in their own right and include painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur as well brother and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur.
In France, an artist who specialized in the painting of animals was called an animalière. Rosa Bonheur, or RB as she was known to her contemporaries, was an animalière par excellence. Her career was largely made on sentimental, but always incredibly skilled, depictions of horses and cattle, goats and sheep.
Bonheur’s two most famous paintings — Ploughing in the Nivernais and The Horse Fair — were both animal themed. The former shows teams of oxen at the plow. The latter is an almost 20-foot-long painting of a horse sale on the streets of Paris.
The root of Bonheur’s love for animals actually sprang from her troubles learning. She was a bit of a rowdy child and had a hard time reading. The story goes that her mother lured her in with a task Rosa found irresistible: drawing a different animal for each letter of the alphabet.
When her father eventually took her under his wing as a painting apprentice, Bonheur got unprecedented access to people and places that fed this fire including famed scientist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s zoological gardens. She visited slaughterhouses and dissected animals to better understand anatomy as well and attended horse markets every week to sketch the subjects she was so enamored with directly from life.
Despite taking her on as a student, Rosa’s father was in and out of her life between his bouts of staying in relative isolation with the Saint Simeon sect in their retreat outside of Paris. Rosa’s mother passed away when she was 11.
Perhaps the lose somewhat explains Rosa’s difficulties in school. She was disruptive in class and expelled from several institutions. Her apprenticeship with a seamstress when she was 12 was such a debacle that her father decided immediately to take his daughter as his own student, training her as a draftsman, sculptor and painter. Rosa’s father eventually left his family to live with the Saint Simeon sect full-time in 1834.
Bonheur first exhibited her paintings at the Paris Salon when she was 19. The works she showed–oil paintings of rabbits and goats–garnered her instant attention. Prizes and commissions rolled in from there. She was the first woman to ever receive the Grand Cross by the French Legion of Honor.
For the rest of her life, Bonheur lived well-off financially, which was in large part a credit to the resourcefulness of dealer Ernest Gambart.
Gambart championed the concept of subsidiary rights. With his guidance, Rosa was able to secure substantial profits not just from the sale of her original paintings but from copyrights held on reproductions of her work. Engravings of The Horse Fair were sold in France, Britain and the United States. Bonheur even had a doll made in her likeness that is now a rare collectible.
Two Major Works
Plowing on the Nivernais was a commission from the French government. The Horse Fair was bought by Gambart and it eventually went on tour to the United Kingdom and was even put on display for a private viewing for Queen Victoria. Cornelius Vanderbilt eventually purchased the massive oil and donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it resides today.
A Certain Scorn
Bonheur’s father was a follower of French social philosopher Saint-Simon, who believed in the equality of the sexes. Rosa was raised as an equal to her brothers and this independent mindedness led the artist to live her life on her own terms.
She kept her hair short and wore dresses for social occasions but lived mostly in menswear. She even obtained permission from the French government to wear pants publicly so as to be able to move more easily and safely in the environments that she worked in. Her working attire also consisted of a loose smock and heavy boots that protected her feet. She smoked cigars publicly and hunted. She once told a male friend, ”… if you only knew how little I care for your sex, you wouldn’t get such queer ideas into your head. The fact is, in the way of males, I like only the bulls I paint. ”
A Public Life
Rosa Bonheur was an exception for her times as both a woman and homosexual. She lived her private life very much publicly with little secrecy, which was unprecedented for the time, and had two committed romantic relationships with women during her life. The first was with Nathalie Micas, whose family took Rosa in when her mother died. Rosa and Nathalie lived as partners until Micas’ death more than 40 years later.
Her second relationship was with American artist Anna Klumpke, who was more than 30 years younger than Rosa. Klumpke managed Bonheur’s estate upon her death and wrote her biography and established the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Art School to offer instruction to women.
During the last decade of her life, Bonheur continued painting. The most famous work of this period is the portrait she painted of Buffalo Bill astride his horse. Yes, indeed, in 1889 Bonheur saw Col. William F. Cody’s Wild West show at the Paris Exposition and sketched the famed scout’s portrait. The sketches became the basis for Bonheur’s painting, The Buffalo Hunt. Cody eventually used the painting prominently in his own publicity campaigns.
Acclaimed But Out of Fashion
Like many 19th-century realist painters, Bonheur’s popularity faded significantly after her death and the dawning of the 20th century. The sentimentality of her work offered little appeal to modern artists. In 1978 a critic described Plowing in the Nivernais as “entirely forgotten and rarely dragged out from oblivion” thought the work traveled to China that same year and Bonheur’s obscurity was somewhat mitigated.
With the prominent placement of The Horse Fair in the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bonheur is certainly a mainstay for millions of museum visitors each year. But it is her exceptional biography and identity as a gay female artist living boldly and independently in a very constrictive time that has pulled her completely out of obscurity.