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Wild Spirit: The Work of Rosa Bonheur
by Jen Longshaw

Bonheur Sheep

Ahead of her time in the way she dressed and behaved French painter Rosa Bonheur led the way for a generation of women artists.

Known throughout her life as an eccentric with a forceful personality the French artist Rosa Bonheur took a traditional route when it came to her chosen career. Born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, France Rosa’s parents were to provide her with a strong non-conformist background whilst encouraging her artistic ability. Her mother, Sophie Bonheur, taught her the alphabet by drawing animals next to each letter imbuing a love of nature and art from an early age. Her father, Raimond Bonheur, a unsuccessful landscape painter who held extremely strong socialist beliefs, belonged to a number of unusual groups throughout his lifetime, even living in a monastery at one time. After failing to make a living as an artist Raimond was forced to take up teaching as a profession and moved to Paris in 1828. Despite this however the family still struggled and after giving birth to another daughter and two sons Sophie died in 1833 when Rosa was only 11 years old.

Females were discouraged from attending art school in the 19th century Rosa was indeed fortunate that her father took the time to tutor and encourage her interest in art. From age 10 she spent time sketching animals in the parks surrounding Paris and Raimond also allowed her to keep a variety of pets including a pet sheep, which she housed on the balcony of the family’s 6th floor apartment. By age 17 she was earning money to help supplement the family income by making copies of paintings in the Louvre. In particular she was strongly influenced by the work of the English animal painter Edward Landseer. Rosa also studied anatomy by visiting slaughterhouses and performing dissections in order to study the animals’ bone and muscle structure. She then used this information in her preparatory sketches and studies before beginning to work on her paintings.Bonheur weaning the calves

Rosa cut a controversial figure in her time. Smoking cigarettes in public she also rode astride, had short hair and wore men’s clothing (she once had to ask permission from the police in order to wear trousers and a smock so that she could work undisturbed while sketching at a horse fair). Not conventionally beautiful on one occasion she was arrested while wearing female attire by a gendarme who thought she was a man dressed as a woman! On leaving home Rosa lived with female companions: for 50 years she shared her life with Nathalie Micas whom she had met in her teens and who died in 1889 leaving her heartbroken. Afterwards she became attached to the American artist Anna E. Klumpke.

As a young artist Rosa exhibited animal paintings and sculpture at the Paris Salon during 1841-1853 winning a third prize in 1845 and a gold medal in 1848. The Salon was renown for supporting traditional artists and in this Rosa did not disappoint them although her work was devoid of the sentimentalism inherent in so much of the work of other 19th century animal painters. From this initial success at the Salon she was awarded a commission from the French Government to paint a work on the subject of ploughing. “Plowing in the Nivernais” was later exhibited at the Salon in 1849 and firmly established her reputation. However her most famous work “The Horse Fair” (1853) was the painting which won her international acclaim and garnered her many well-known admirers. Chief among these was Queen Victoria who ordered a private viewing of the work at Windsor Castle. In fact so popular did Rosa become in England that her chief source of income during the 1860s-70s came from that country.Bonheur the horse fair

Throughout a long and illustrious career Rosa went on to accumulate many awards. She was the first woman to win a cross of the Legion d’Honneur for outstanding achievement in her field. The Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, bestowed this on her in June 1865 stating as she did so that “genius has no sex”. Other honours included awards from the Great Exhibit of London 1862, the Paris Exposition Universalle 1867, and the Chicago Words Colombian Exposition in 1893. Retiring to a chateau near Fontainebleau, which she called “The Domain of Perfect Affection” Rosa spent much of her time with a menagerie of animals that included bears and lions and well as writing prolifically. When she died in 1899 her ashes were buried in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris along with those of the two women with whom she had shared her life.

©Jen Longshaw 2001-2006 Please do not copy in any manner, print or electronic, without permission from the author.


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