The knowledge of animal anatomy Rosa possessed left us the wonderful animal paintings she was so famous for. She was equally adept at painting from life and her work is an incredible legacy of 19th Century America. She was a woman who was far ahead of her time in attitude and understanding of the world around her.
Bonheur, born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, (16 March 1822 – 25 May 1899) was a French animalière, realist artist, and sculptor. As a painter she became famous primarily for two chief works: Ploughing in the Nivernais (in french: Le labourage nivernais, le sombrage), which was first exhibited at the Salon of 1848, and is now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris depicts a team of oxen ploughing a field while attended by peasants set against a vast pastoral landscape; and, The Horse Fair (in French: Le marché aux chevaux) (which was exhibited at the Salon of 1853 (finished in 1855) and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Bonheur is widely considered to have been the most famous female painter of the nineteenth century.
Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, Gironde, the oldest child in a family of artists. Her father Raimond Bonheur was a landscape and portrait painter and an early adherent of Saint-Simonianism, a Christian–socialist sect that promoted the education of women alongside men. The Saint-Simonians also prophesied the coming of a female messiah. Her mother Sophie (née Marquis) who died when Rosa Bonheur was only eleven, had been a piano teacher. Bonheur’s younger siblings included the animal painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and the animal sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. That the Bonheur family was renowned as a family of artists is attested to by the fact that Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin used the Bonheurs as an example of “HereditaryGenius” in his 1869 essay of the same title.
Bonheur was born in Bordeaux (where her father had been friends with Francisco Goya who was living there in exile) but moved to Paris in 1828 at the age of six with her mother and brothers, her father having gone ahead of them to establish a residence and income. By family accounts, she had been an unruly child and had a difficult time learning to read. To remedy this her mother taught her to read and write by having her select and draw an animal for each letter of thealphabet. To this practice in the company of her doting mother she attributed her love of drawing animals.
Edouard Louis Dubufe,Portrait of Rosa Bonheur 1857, which shows the artist with a bull, symbolic of her work as a painter of animals, orAnimalière.
Although she was sent to school like her brothers, she was a disruptive force in the classroom and was consequently expelled from numerous schools. Finally, after trying to apprentice her to a seamstress Raimond agreed to take her education as a painter upon himself. She was twelve at that point and would have been too young to attend the École des Beaux-Arts even if they had accepted women.
As was traditional in the art schools of the period, Bonheur began her artistic training by copying images from drawing books and by sketching from plaster models. As her training progressed she began to make studies of domesticated animals from life, to includehorses, sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and other animals in the pastures on the perimeter of Paris, the open fields o fVilliers and the still-wild Bois de Boulogne. At age fourteen she began to copy from paintings at the Louvre. Among her favorite painters were Nicholas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, but she also copied the paintings of Paulus Potter, Porbus,Louis Léopold Robert, Salvatore Rosa and Karel Dujardin.
She also studied animal anatomy and osteology by visiting the abattoirs of Paris and by performing dissections of animals at the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, the National Veterinary Institute in Paris. There she prepared detailed studies which she would later use as references for her paintings and sculptures. During this period, too, she also met and became friends with the father and son comparative anatomists and zoologists Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire by whom her father was employed to create natural history illustrations.
Due to a tendency in 1980s-1990s academic criticism to locate Bonheur as a proto-Feminist and as a pivotal figure for Queer theory, she is perhaps most famous today because she was known for wearing men’s clothing and living with women. Her work and artistic talent has now become somewhat secondary in importance to her manner of dress, her choice of companions and her penchant for smoking cigarettes. On her wearing of trousers, she said at the time that her choice of attire was simply practical as it facilitated her work with animals: “I was forced to recognize that the clothing of my sex was a constant bother. That is why I decided to solicit the authorization to wear men’s clothing from the prefect of police. But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else. The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me….” She lived for over forty years with her childhood friend Nathalie Micas. In the final year of her life she became close with Anna Klumpke, the author of her “autobiography”.
She died at the age of 77, at Thomery, France. Many of her paintings, which had not previously been shown publicly, were sold at auction in Paris in 1900.