Biography of Rosa Bonheur, French Artist

Rosa Bonheur
Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), French realist painter. Ca. 1865.

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Rosa Bonheur (March 16, 1822–May 25, 1899) was a French painter, best known today for her large scale painting the Horse Fair (1852-1855), which is part of the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was the first woman to receive France’s Cross of the Legion of Honor, in 1894. 

Fast Facts: Rosa Bonheur

  • Full Name: Marie-Rosalie Bonheur
  • Known For: Realist animal paintings and sculptures. Considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century.
  • Born: March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France
  • Parents: Sophie Marquis and Oscar-Raymond Bonheur
  • Died: May 25, 1899 in Thomery, France
  • Education: Trained by her father, who was a landscape and portrait painter and art teacher
  • Mediums: Painting, sculpture
  • Art Movement: Realism
  • Selected Works: Ploughing in the Nivernais (1949), The Horse Fair (1855)

Early Life 

Marie-Rosalie Bonheur was born to Sophie Marquis and Raimond Bonheur in 1822, the first of four children. Her parents’ marriage was a match between a cultured young lady used to the company of European aristocracy and a man of the people, who would become only a moderately successful artist (though Rosa Bonheur would certainly credit him with raising and cultivating her artistic talent and therefore her success). Sophie Marquis succumbed to illness in 1833, when Bonheur was only 11 years old. 

Raimond Bonheur (who later changed the spelling of his name to Raymond) was a San Simonian, a member of the French political group active during the first half of the 19th century. His politics rejected the sentimentalism of the Romantic movement, which can account for the realist subjects which his daughter painted, as well as the relative equality with which he treated her, his eldest daughter. 

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Portrait of Rosa Bonheur by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Corbis / Getty Images

Bonheur was trained in drawing by her father alongside her brothers. Seeing his daughter’s early talent, he insisted she would surpass the fame of Madame Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), one of the most famous female artists of the era.

During Bonheur’s youth, the family followed their politically active father to Paris from Bordeaux, a change of scenery that the young artist resented. The family struggled financially, and Bonheur’s early memories were of moving from one small apartment to another. Her time in Paris, however, did expose her to the front lines of French history, including much social unrest.

Newly widowed in 1833, Bonheur’s father tried to apprentice his young daughter as a seamstress, hoping to secure her a financially viable profession, but her rebellious streak kept her from being successful. Eventually he allowed her to join him in the studio, where he taught her everything he knew. She enrolled at the Louvre (as women were not allowed in the Academy) at the age of 14, where she stood out for both her youth and her gender.  

Though definite conclusions about the artist’s sexuality are impossible, Bonheur did have a lifelong companion in Nathalie Micas, whom she met at the age of 14, when Micas received art lessons from Bonheur’s father. Bonheur became increasingly distant from her family due to this relationship, which lasted until Nathalie’s death in 1889. 

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur. Artist: Dubufe, Édouard Louis
Portrait of Rosa Bonheur. Found in the collection of Musée de l'Histoire de France, Château de Versailles. Heritage Images / Getty Images 

Early Success 

In 1842, Raymond Bonheur remarried, and the addition of his new wife freed Rosa from taking care of her younger siblings, thereby allowing her more time to paint. By the age of 23, Bonheur was already getting attention for her skilled rendering of animals, and it was not uncommon for her to win awards for her work. She won a medal at the Paris Salon in 1845, her first of many. 

In order to realistically depict her subjects, Bonheur would dissect animals to study anatomy. She spent many hours at the slaughterhouse, where her presence was questioned, as she was not only petite, but above all else, female. 

She also frequented the Louvre, where she studied the work of the Barbizon School, as well as Dutch animal painters, among them Paulus Potter. She was not, despite her living in Paris, influenced by contemporary art, and would remain largely oblivious (or outright hostile) to it for her entire life. 

The Farm At The Entrance Of The Wood
The Farm at the Entrance of the Wood, 1860-1880. One of the most celebrated female artists of the 19th century, Bonheur established an international reputation by exhibiting at the Paris Salons. Empress Eugènie, wife of Napoleon III, visited her studio to personally confer the Legion of Honor, making Bonheur the first woman to receive the award. This painting may have been inspired by the rustic houses in the vicinity of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where Bonheur lived for more than 40 years. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Feminism

Bonheur’s feminism was typical of the time, influenced by both a post-French Revolution sense of enlightenment and freedom, while also inhibited by a sense of middle class propriety. (Many writers and artists of the time who espoused liberal thinking hypocritically criticized the emancipation of women.) 

Throughout her life, Bonheur wore men’s clothing, though she always insisted it was a matter of convenience rather than a political statement. She often self-consciously changed her clothing to more appropriate women’s dress when she had company (including when the Empress Eugénie came to visit her in 1864). The artist was also known to smoke cigarettes and ride horses astride, as a man would, which caused a stir in polite society. 

Ploughing in Nevers by Rosa Bonheur
Ploughing in Nevers also called the First Dressing. Painting by Marie Rosalie Bonheur called Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), 1849. 1,3 x 2,6 m. Orsay Museum, Paris. Corbis / Getty Images

Bonheur was a great admirer of her contemporary, the French writer George Sand (a nom de plume for Amantine Dupin), whose outspoken advocacy for the equality of women’s artistic achievement resonated with the artist. In fact, her 1849 painting Ploughing in the Nivernais was inspired by Sand’s pastoral novel La Mare au Diable (1846)

The Horse Fair 

In 1852, Bonheur painted her most famous work, The Horse Fair, whose enormous scale was unusual for the artist. Inspired by the horse market at Paris’ Boulevard de l’Hôpital, Bonheur looked to the works of Théodore Géricault for guidance when planning its composition. The painting was both a critical and commercial success, as people flooded the gallery to see it. It was praised by the Empress Eugénie, as well as Eugène Delacroix. Bonheur called it her own “Parthenon Frieze,” referring to its elaborate and energetic composition. 

The Horse Fair
The Horse Fair, 1852-55. Horse market held in Paris on the tree-lined Boulevard de l'Hopital. Artist Rosa Bonheur. Heritage Images / Getty Images

Awarded a first class medal for the Horse Fair, she was owed the cross of the Legion of Honor (as is customary), but was refused it as she was a woman. She officially won the prize, however, in 1894 and was the first woman to do so. 

The Horse Fair was made into a print and hung in school rooms, where it influenced generations of artists. The painting also went on tour to the United Kingdom and the United States, thanks to the intervention of Bonheur’s new dealer and agent, Ernest Gambard. Gambard was instrumental in Bonheur’s continued success, as he was responsible for promoting the artist’s reputation abroad. 

Reception Abroad 

Though she achieved success in her native France, her work was met with even more enthusiasm abroad. In the United States her paintings were collected by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (he bequeathed the Horse Fair to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1887), and in England Queen Victoria was known to be an admirer. 

A Limier Briquet Hound by Rosa Bonheur
A Limier Briquet Hound by Rosa Bonheur 1856, oil on canvas, 36.8 × 45.7 cm (14.5 × 18 in). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Corbis / Getty Images

As Bonheur did not exhibit in French Salons after the 1860s, her work was considerably less respected in her native country. In fact, as Bonheur aged and her particular style of pastoral realism aged along with her, she was increasingly seen as a regressive who was more interested in commissions than in true artistic inspiration. 

Her success in Britain was considerable, however, as many saw her style to share affinities with British animal paintings, such as those painted by Bonheur’s great hero, Theodore Landseer. 

Later Life 

Bonheur was able to live comfortably on the income she received from her paintings, and in 1859 she purchased a château at By, close to the forest of Fontainebleau. It was there that she took refuge from the city and was able to cultivate an extensive menagerie from which she could paint. She owned dogs, horses, a variety of birds, pigs, goats, and even lionesses, which she treated as if they were dogs. 

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron Launch Heritage Days At Rosa Bonheur's Home Studio
View of a room of the Chateau de By ("By Castle"), the former property of the late French artist Rosa Bonheur, taken on September 20, 2019 in Thomery, outside Paris. Corbis / Getty Images

Like her father before her, Bonheur had an abiding interest in the United States, especially with the American West. When Buffalo Bill Cody came to France with his Wild West Show in 1899, Bonheur met him and painted his portrait. 

Despite the procession of admirers and celebrities who would show up at her door, as she aged Bonheur associated less and less with her fellow man, instead drawing into the company of her animals, who she often remarked possessed a greater capacity for love than some human beings. 

An Old Monarch by Rosa Bonheur - 19th Century
An Old Monarch by Rosa Bonheur (circa 19th century). Vintage etching circa late 19th century. powerofforever / Getty Images

Death and Legacy

Rosa Bonheur died in 1899, at the age of 77. She left her estate to Anna Klumpke, her companion and biographer. She is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris alongside Nathalie Micas. Klumpke’s ashes were interred with them when she died in 1945. 

The successes of the artist’s life were great. In addition to becoming an Officer of the Legion of Honor, Bonheur was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Royal Order of Isabella by the king of Spain, as well as the Catholic Cross and the Leopold Cross by the king of Belgium. She was also elected as an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Watercolorists in London. 

Bonheur’s star, however, was overshadowed towards the end of her life when her artistic conservatism was unbending in the face of new art movements in France like impressionism, which began to cast her work in a regressive light. Many thought of Bonheur as too commercial and characterized the artist’s incessant production as that of a factory, from which she churned out uninspired paintings on commission. 

While Bonheur was very famous during her life, her artistic star has since faded. Whether due to diminished taste for 19th century realism, or her status as a woman (or some combination thereof), Bonheur maintains a place in history more as a pioneering woman to look up to rather than a painter in her own right. 

Sources 

  • Dore, Ashton and Denise Brown Hare. Rosa Bonheur: A Life and a Legend. Studio, 1981. 
  • Fine, Elsa Honig. Women And Art: A History Of Women Painters And Sculptors From The Renaissance To The 20Th Century. Allanheld & Schram, 1978.
  • “Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair.” The Met Museum, www.metmuseum.org/en/art/collection/search/435702.