Rosa Bonheur, née Marie-Rosalie Bonheur, (b. Bordeaux, France, March 16, 1822 – d. Thomery (By), France, May 25, 1899) was a French animalière and realist artist.
As a painter she became famous primarily for two chief works: Ploughing in the Nivernais, 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, 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 woman painter of the nineteenth century.
Early development and artistic training
Bonheur was the eldest 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 prophesized the coming of a female messiah. Her mother Sophie (neé 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 "Hereditary Genius" 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 the alphabet. To this practice in the company of her doting mother she attributed her love of drawing animals.
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 include horses, sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and other animals in the pastures on the perimeter of Paris, the open fields of Villiers and the (then) 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, 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 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.
Rosa Bonheur received a French government commission which lead to her first great success, Ploughing in the Nivernais, exhibited in 1849. Her most famous work was the monumental Horse Fair, completed in 1855, which measured eight feet high by sixteen feet wide. Its subject is the horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined boulevard de l’Hôpital, near the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, visible in the background on the left. It led to international fame and recognition and that same year she travelled to Scotland, enroute meeting Queen Victoria, who admired her work, and where she completed sketches for later works including A Scottish Raid completed in 1860, and Highland Shepherd. These were anachronistic pieces, as they depicted a way of life in the Scottish highlands that had disappeared a century earlier. Nonetheless, they had enormous appeal to Victorian sensibilities. She was especially popular in England and less so in her native France.
Patronage and the market for her work
She was represented by private art galleries, and in particular that of Ernest Gambart (1814-1902), which would purchase the reproduction rights to her work and sell engraved copies of her paintings. It was Gambart who brought Bonheur to the United Kingdom in 1855. Many engravings were created by the skillful Charles George Lewis (1808-1880), one of the finest engravers of his day. Gambart sold through his gallery in London's Pall Mall.
Bonheur lived for fifty years with her female companion Nathalie Micas (and with Micas's mother) in the Château near Fontainebleau. The two women had been best friends since the age of twelve. Raimond Bonheur had been commissioned to paint the young Micas's portrait because she was a sickly child and her parents feared that she was going to die. After Micas's death many years later, Bonheur lived the last year of her life with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke while Klumpke wrote Bonheur's (auto)biography and painted her portrait. Upon Bonheur's death Klumpke inherited the estate. Because of these relationships, and Bonheur's failure to marry, it is often claimed in current scholarship that she was a lesbian. However, there were no such claims made in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of her life.
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. This is ironic because (as a woman and possible lesbian) the practice that she devoted her working life to as an artist is now largely forgotten or dismissed as secondary in importance to her clothing, her female companions and her penchant for smoking cigarettes. On her wearing of trousers, she said at the time that this 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 died at the age of 77. Many of her paintings, which had not been shown publicly, were sold at auction in Paris in 1900.
While there are many sources of biographical information about Rosa Bonheur, there are three primary texts which are most consulted and cited in the subsequent literature; the first is a pamphlet written by Eugène de Mirecourt, Les Contemporains: Rosa Bonheur which appeared in 1856 just after her Salon success with The Horse Fair. When, in 1897, Venancio Deslandes came across a copy of this pamphlet he sent it to Bonheur with a request that she might tell him if it were accurate. This document, corrected and annotated by Rosa Bonheur herself is a key primary biographical source. The second account was written by Anna Klumpke, an American painter from Boston who made Bonheur’s acquaintance in 1887 while serving as a translator for an American collector of her work and later became the older artist’s companion in the last year of her life. This account, published in 1909 as Rosa Bonheur: sa vie, son oeuvre was translated in 1997 by Gretchen Van Slyke as Rosa Bonheur: The Artist's (Auto)biography because Klumpke had written Bonheur’s biography in the first-person voice. The third, and most authoritative work is Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur, edited by Theodore Stanton (the son of Elizabeth Cady Stanton the American feminist), and published simultaneously in London and New York in 1910. This particular volume includes numerous correspondence between Bonheur and her family and friends, subsequently lending the deepest insight into the artist’s life as well as her understanding of her own art-making practices and the art world in general. The volume is arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, except when letters and reviews are grouped by correspondent or critic.