Rosa Bonheur (March 16, 1822 – May 25, 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. The painting 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 and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Among her favorite painters were Nicholas Poussin and Peter Paul Rubens, but she also copied the paintings of Paulus Potter, Pourbus, Louis Léopold Robert, Salvatore Rosa and Karel Dujardin.
Bonheur’s unconventional lifestyle contributed to the myth that surrounded her during her lifetime that she was “queer”. She smoked cigarettes in public, rode astride, and wore her hair short. To study the anatomy of animals, Bonheur visited the slaughterhouse; for this work, she favored men’s attire and was required to obtain an official authorization from the police to dress in men’s clothing and a smock. She steadfastly claimed that her attire was merely to facilitate her work with animals. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Bonheur became a feminist symbol.
Bonheur’s popularity in England was assured after two versions of The Horse Fair were exhibited there, and Queen Victoria ordered a private viewing of the original at Windsor Castle. The artist’s chief source of revenue in the 1860s and 1870s came from sales in England rather than from her native France. In 1894 she was the first woman to receive the Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here is an interview with Rebecca Rabinow, associate curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, about The Horse Fair.
- Rosa Bonheur…and my niece, Eliza. (timesunion.com)
- Women Artists: Rosa Bonheur – youtube
- Rosa Bonheur – National Museum of Women in the Arts
- The Athenaeum: Displaying Artworks for Rosa Bonheur