“Genius has no gender” – Eugénie de Montijo
Hailed by her contemporaries as the most popular animal-painter, male or female, of the nineteenth century, the French artist Rosa Bonheur (1822-99) lived to see her name become a household word. In a century that did its best to keep women” in their place,” Bonheur, like George Sand –to whom she was often compared– defined herself outside of the social and legal codes of her time. To the horror and bewilderment of many, she earned her own money, managed her own property, wore trousers, hunted, smoked, and lived in retreat with female companions in a little chateau near Fountainebleau named The Domain of Perfect Affection. Source
Rosa Bonheur (née Marie-Rosalie) was the oldest of four children, two girls and two boys, born to an idealistic artist father, Oscar-Raymond, and a patient piano teacher mother, Sophie. Interestingly, all four of the children grew to be talented and successful artists. The family moved from rural Bordeaux to Paris in 1829 when Rosa was six years old. Source
Life in the busy city of Paris was different from the calm country life of Bordeaux. Bonheur’s father subscribed to the Saint-Simonian philosophy, which adhered to Utopian socialist values and supported a vision of universal harmony that included total sexual equality. Bonheur recalled “…This was, I believe, the first pronounced step in a course which my father always pursued…named co-education…I was generally a leader in all the games…I did not hesitate now and again to use my fists…a masculine bent was given to my existence…” Oscar-Raymond believed so resolutely in the education and equality of women that he became director for a time of the only available free drawing school for girls that had been founded in Paris under state sponsorship in 1803. After their father’s death, Bonheur and one of her sisters took over his position as head of the school. Source
(Pictured left : Edouard Louis Dubufe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur 1857. Symbolic of her work as an Animalière, the bull was painted by Bonheur herself)
When Bonheur was only ten a cholera epidemic was sweeping through France. Her father was embroiled in his political and philosophical pursuits and her mother was exhausted. The family did their best to remain indoors to remain free from the disease. Although the children and father all survived, their mother, Sophie fell ill and died at the age of 36.Source
After her mother’s death, Bonheur met Nathalie Micas, who became a lifelong companion. By the time Bonheur was in her teens, her talent for sketching live animals had manifested itself, and—rejecting training as a seamstress—she began studying animal motion and forms on farms, in stockyards, and at animal markets, horse fairs, and slaughterhouses, observing and sketching them and gaining an intimate knowledge of animal anatomy. At the Salon of 1841 she exhibited two paintings, Goats and Sheep and Rabbits Nibbling Carrots (1840). Source Her approach to realism is shown in Rabbits Nibbling Carrots, in which she took pains to render the softness of the rabbits’ fur by painting it using hundreds of fine lines. Source
Her sketching visits to those public places that were largely the domain of men, as well as her work in the studio, prompted her by at least the early 1850s to eschew traditional female clothing for the trousers and loose blouse of a male peasant. She continued to dress in masculine attire for the rest of her life, though she came to be mocked and disparaged for her garb. Like novelist George Sand, whom Bonheur admired, she obtained police authorization to dress as she did (1852). Source
Bonheur also made a number of sketching trips to such regions as Auvergneand the Pyrenees, as well as to London, Birmingham, and Scotland. She exhibited regularly at the Salon from 1841 to 1855, winning exemption from jury approval in 1853. Her work rapidly gained popularity in the United States and Britain. The Horse Fair (1853), considered by many to be her masterpiece, was acquired in 1887 by Cornelius Vanderbilt for a record sum and became one of her most widely reproduced works; Vanderbilt donated the piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Bonheur’s work sold so well that in 1860 she was able to purchase an estate with a château, at By, near Fontainebleau. She was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour (1865). In the 1870s she began to study and sketch lions and to master the characteristics of their movement as she had horses and many other animals; as an aid to her observation and in appreciation of their spirit, she even raised some lions on her estate.
In addition to animals, Bonheur was intrigued by the legends of the American West. When “Buffalo Bill” Cody took his Wild West show to Paris in 1889, Bonheur befriended him and sketched his encampment and its denizens, as well as painting his portrait on horseback.
(Pictured right : Rosa Bonheur, Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), 1889. Oil on Canvas, 18.5 in x 15.2 in. Whitney Gallery of Western Art Collection, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody WY)
Micas, Bonheur’s companion, died in 1889. That same year Bonheur met a young American painter, Anna Klumpke, with whom she corresponded for many years. Klumpke eventually traveled to France to paint Bonheur’s portrait, and the two artists remained together at By until Bonheur’s death. Source
Rosa Bonheur became a commercially successful painter at a time and place when few women were successful at pursuing a career in the arts. Europeans of the nineteenth century considered art to be a lady’s pastime pursued at her home but due to her father’s training and influences, Bonheur approached her artwork as her profession. Bonheur’s staunch belief in women’s equality and her unconventional personal habits, which included wearing men’s clothing at work, riding her horse astride, and smoking identified her as an early feminist. Source
By painting animals and not women themselves, Bonheur’s influence upon other women artists seems to skip a generation and jump straight into the twentieth century. Artists such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, who followed Bonheur directly in timeline, mainly depicted the limitations of domestic existence in a remaining patriarchal world. It was the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Claude Cahun of the early-twentieth century who rejected constructed expectations and binary gender roles absolutely, to the extent that they created art that they wanted to, and not work simply to reveal that they were still caged. These women wore men’s clothes to show that it was about time that their achievements were equally assessed, and remarkably, Rosa Bonheur had this same attitude as the female artists of the twentieth century who collectively, in time, radically shifted and changed the freedom and rights of women. Source
Unconventional in her lifestyle, Bonheur painted with academic rigor but her methods of working en plein air were still relatively unusual for the day. She admired the Barbizon School in France and many members of this group painted their landscapes outdoors. However, the majority of artists working during the nineteenth century were still studio based. Especially towards the end of her career, Bonheur always took her canvas and easel outside, and in this act she influenced the next radical turn and movement in art history, that of Impressionism. The likes of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro advocated the en plein airtechnique in order to achieve true likeness and capture the most beautiful light, and such were the ideals shared with the ever forward thinker, Rosa Bonheur. Source