Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Rosa Bonheur lived in France in the 19th Century, and she was an animalière, which means that she painted lots of pictures of animals.  She was also a realist, which means that when she painted an animal, it looked very much like the real thing.  Mlle. Bonheur made many paintings of dogs, which is something I like very much in an artist.  But she also painted horses, sheep, oxen, deer, lions, and some other animals.  Today I am mostly going to show you some of Rosa Bonheur's horse paintings, because it is still the Year of the Horse.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, by Anna Klumpke, 1898

When Mlle. Bonheur was born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, she was given the name Marie-Rosalie Bonheur.  She was the oldest child in a family where everybody was an artist.  Her mother taught piano, and her siblings all grew up to be artists.  The family's father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, was a minor landscape and portrait painter.  He became friends with Francisco Goya when Goya was living in exile in Bordeaux in the 1820s.  M. Bonheur belonged to a Christian-socialist sect called Saint-Simonianism.  This group believed in the radical idea that women should study alongside men and get the same kind of education that men did.

Wild Horses, 1889

Rosa Bonheur's mother died when Rosa was only 11.  All the children were sent to school, but Rosa kept causing trouble, and she got expelled from several schools.  Her father tried to apprentice her to a seamstress, but that didn't work out either.  So he agreed to teach her how to be a painter.  At this point, Rosa Bonheur was 12 years old.

Lion at Rest, 1880

Her artistic training was done in the traditional way.  She started by copying drawings from books and by sketching plaster models.  Later, she did studies of living animals in the pastures and open fields.  She learned animal anatomy by visiting slaughterhouses and by dissecting animals at the National Veterinary Institute.

Plowing in Nivernais, 1849

Mlle. Bonheur's first big success was a painting called Plowing in Nivernais, which the government commissioned her to do in 1849.  Today this painting is in the Musée Nationale du Château de Fontainebleau.

The Horse Fair, 1852-55

Another work that she became really famous for was called The Horse Fair.  It was a huge painting, like 8 feet tall and 16 feet wide.  Queen Victoria saw it and liked it very much.  The French Empress Eugénie also liked it.  In 1865, she personally visited Mlle. Bonheur in her studio to award her the cross of the Legion of Honor.

Buffalo Bill, 1889

Even though Rosa Bonheur worked in a traditional way, such as by doing careful sketches before she started putting paint on the canvas, other parts of her life were not so traditional.  For example, Mlle. Bonheur preferred to wear trousers instead of a dress, especially if she was visiting a slaughterhouse or vivisection lab.  She said, "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..."

Bonheur in the garden of her Chateau at By (1880-1890)

She liked to smoke cigarettes, and she never married.  For over 40 years, she lived with her childhood friend, Nathalie Micas.  Then, in the last few years of her life, she lived with American artist Anna Klumpke, who wrote Rosa Bonheur's "autobiography."

The Ass

Mlle. Bonheur had a strong sense of independence.  She believed that women could be successful artists, just like men could be, and she went on to prove it.  She was probably the most popular female artist of the 19th century.  She was even more popular in England than she was in France.   Paul-Louis Hervier described her in the 1908 La Nouvelle Revue as: "Simple, welcoming, of an extreme frankness, she was loved by all; because of her good heart, her generosity, her simplicity, which were not studied but spontaneous, she acquired the well deserved reputation of a beneficent fairy."

Monarchs of the Forest

Rosa Bonheur died on May 25, 1899, at the age of 77.  She left everything to her close friend, Anna Klumpke.  Many of Mlle. Bonheur's paintings, which had never been shown in public, were sold at auction in Paris in 1900.  One of her works, Monarchs of the Forest, sold in a 2008 auction for just over $200,000.

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