Cropped-haired, chain-smoking, pants-wearing lesbian, she was a darling of Victorian collectors.
The Horse Fair, 1852-55, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henry James, who invented the fictional New Woman of the 19thcentury, made his heroines pay a price for their independence. Was that accurate?
Recently I wrote about les trois grandes dames of Impressionism and the early feminists who came to be known as New Women. Their rise coincided with James’ novels, so it’s hard to say which came first, the fiction or the truth. Either way, the accepted story is that they made great sacrifices in order to be true to themselves.
Americans know Rosa Bonheur mainly for the sprawling The Horse Fair in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bonheur was a genre painter, an animalière, as they were called in the 19thcentury.
Weaning the Calves, 1879, Rosa Bonheur, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bonheur was a fractious child and an indifferent student, but she was an apt draftsman from a very young age. That’s not surprising, since she was from a family of excellent artists. Her father was painter Oscar-Raymond Bonheur. Among her siblings were painters Auguste Bonheur and Juliette Bonheur and sculptor Isidore Jules Bonheur. Improbably, they all focused on animals as their subject. All of them were highly competent artists. None of them were as successful as their sister.
Bonheur was the eldest. It was not until she failed an apprenticeship as a seamstress at the tender age of 12 that she returned to her father’s studio for serious training. He set her to traditional study, copying works from books and sketching plaster casts. From there she moved to dissection and anatomy studies of animals in the abattoirs of Paris.
Bonheur’s permission de travestissement from the Paris police.
To make The Horse Fair, Bonheur visited the Paris horse market twice weekly for 18 months. She sought and gained a permission de travestissement(permission to cross-dress) from the Paris police to avoid drawing attention to herself. Earlier forays to the slaughterhouse, she said, had resulted in harassment.
That may have been a polite fiction, as Bonheur routinely dressed like a (male) peasant at home. This was not solely a political statement; she felt that trousers were more practical when working with farm animals. She wore her hair at collar length—slightly longer than the male styles of the time, but too short to be worn up as most women did. And while she wore trousers at home, she dressed in feminine style for formal portraits.
Rosa Bonheur in her garden at By, c. 1890s, provenance unknown
Bonheur was openly lesbian; she lived with her childhood chum Nathalie Micas for over 40 years, until Micas’ death in 1889. Later, she lived with American genre painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. “I am a painter. I have earned my living honestly. My private life is nobody’s concern,” she wrote.
What effect did this have on her career? Apparently, none. She exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1855, winning exemption from jury approval in 1853. Her greatest sales, however, were in the United Kingdom, where she was introduced by her dealer in 1855. She made many trips to England and Scotland to sketch. On one of these trips, she was introduced to Queen Victoria, who was a fan.
Changing of Meadow, 1863, Rosa Bonheur, Kunsthalle Hamburg
As she grew older, Bonheur’s work gained popularity among the new American millionaires, including Cornelius Vanderbilt. When he bought The Horse Fair in 1887 on the secondary market, it was for a record sum.
By 1860, Bonheur was wealthy enough to acquire a chateau at By, near Fontainebleau. She remodeled it extensively, including adding pens for her animal models. She was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, in 1865. And she was famous enough to paint “Buffalo Bill” Cody when his Wild West show visited Paris in 1889.
Bonheur made a success of her life, on her own terms. It’s the work, not the artist, which ultimately sells.
Before he became Maine’s greatest painter, he needed to shed his sentimentality. He did that in part by taking up watercolor.
Five boys at the Shore, Gloucester, 1880, Winslow Homer
After working as an illustrator during the Civil War, Winslow Homer concentrated on two distinct oeuvres: postwar healing and homely, nostalgic paintings of American innocence. These were well-received by the public but not universally respected.
“We frankly confess that we detest his subjects… he has chosen the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization; he has resolutely treated them as if they were pictorial… and, to reward his audacity, he has incontestably succeeded,” said writer Henry James. Winslow Homer’s work in the late 1860s and ‘70s was done in paint, but it was still illustration. When he depicted children as symbols of the nation’s lost innocence, he was playing on a common, well-worn theme of the time.
To be fair, Homer was a young man, and he hadn’t had the advantage of an extensive art education. He was just 29 when the Civil War ended. Snap-the-Whip was finished when he was 36 years old. It was about this time that he was able to give up illustration to focus on painting. It was also around this time that he took up watercolor seriously.
Three Fisher Girls, Tynemouth, 1881, Winslow Homer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
By the middle of the 19th century, the influence of critic John Ruskin led to an interest in watercolor as a serious medium. The American Society of Painters in Watercolor, later to be the American Watercolor Society, was founded in 1866. In 1873, this group mounted an exhibition of nearly 600 paintings at the National Academy of Design.
Homer was living in New York at the time and almost certainly saw this show. It’s also probable that he was already familiar with watercolor painting. It was a genteel medium, widely used by ladies and children, but not respectable enough for galleries.
In 1873, Homer left for Gloucester, where he made his first professional watercolors. That summer he sketched and painted children playing on the waterfront. They clam, row, pick berries, play on cliffs and stare longingly out to sea. These paintings were a continuation of his interest in the lost innocence of America.
The Boatman, 1891, Winslow Homer, courtesy Brooklyn Museum
What was different was how he applied the paint. He drew in graphite, and then painted over his drawing. He didn’t wet his paper, which was common practice at the time. This made for a less-detailed, more sparkling finish. Critics were mixed about the results. Some admired the rawness; others hated it. “A child with an ink bottle could not have done worse,” wrote one.
By the end of that decade, Homer had come to two points in his personal life which would mark his mature work—a tendency to reclusiveness and a fascination with the sea. But before he could become Maine’s quintessential painter, he needed to shed his obsession with the American myth.
Casting, Number Two, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
He spent 1881 and 1882 in the English coastal village of Cullercoats, where he focused on the men and women who made their living from the sea. His palette muted; his painting became more universal. And he made much of this transition in watercolor.
He had, by changing up both his medium and his locale, made himself a painter of an elemental truth—the relationship of man and the sea.
Between 1873 and 1905 Homer made nearly seven hundred watercolors, transforming the medium and his artistic achievement as a whole. “You will see,” he said, “in the future I will live by my watercolors.”
Edmonia Lewis was a Neoclassicist, but her work explored issues of race and gender before these were even concepts.
The Death of Cleopatra, 1876, Edmonia Lewis, courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The first school of American women sculptors arose, paradoxically, in Italy, around Massachusetts-born Harriet Hosmer. These women went to Rome to take advantage of trained carvers and craftsmen and the access to pure white Carraramarble. Along with their male peers, they mined the rich vein of Neoclassicism. America was wealthy and the monument business was booming.
For women artists, there was the additional advantage of breaking away from the social strictures of home. Carving stone is hard physical work, considered uniquely unfeminine in the culture of the time.
Not that they escaped completely. There were plenty of conventional men among the expatriates. Henry James famously described them as “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills [of Rome] in a white, marmorean flock.”
Edmonia Lewis, c. 1870, courtesy National Portrait Gallery.
“One of the sisterhood,” James continued, “was a negress, whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.” Ouch.
He was referring to Edmonia Lewis, who is now considered the first prominent American female minority artist. Devoutly Catholic, she created many religious works, much of which are lost. Her oeuvre also included portrait busts and classical themes.
Lewis was born in Greenbush, Rensselaer County, New York, in 1844. Her father was of Haitian descent and her mother was Mississauga Ojibwe and African. Lewis was orphaned by the age of nine and adopted by two aunts who lived near Niagara Falls and sold souviners to tourists. At age 12, she was sent to a Free Baptist abolitionist school in central New York, and went from there to Oberlin College. After a childhood of absolute freedom, the strictures of civilization were uncomfortable.
Old Arrow Maker, 1872, is nominally an illustration of a passage from the Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It’s also an evocation of Lewis’ own childhood. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years… but was declared to be wild—they could do nothing with me,” she recollected.
At Oberlin, she was accused of poisoning two friends with an aphrodisiac, a nod to her Haitian background. From that point, she was a marked woman. Another accusation, of stealing, prevented her graduation and she moved to Boston to take up training in sculpture. Again, her relationship with her mentor and teacher, Edward Augustus Brackett, broke down into acrimony.
Lewis’ Portrait of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, c. 1866, was one of the sales that enabled her to leave Boston for Rome. Courtesy Museum of African American History.
Meanwhile, she was lauded as a success in the Abolitionist press, bringing commissions and attention before she was fully prepared to deal with them. She left for Rome and a new start.
At the height of her popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s, her studio was frequented by visitors fascinated by her charm and exotic clothing and background.
Lewis’ most celebrated sculpture was the monumental Death of Cleopatra, created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Cleopatra killed herself after the death of her lover and ally, Mark Antony. In the 19th century imagination, she was Africa, he was Europe.
The public was accustomed to depictions of the dying queen as regal, calm and composed. Lewis’ depiction is of a sprawling, inelegant woman, on her throne, in the throes of death. As she did so often in her work, she was quietly looking at issues of race and gender in a novel way.
Karl’s Garden, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
In towns like Camden, ME or Freeport, Grand Bahamas there are year-round residents, seasonal residents, and vacationers. Because painters sit or stand like great lumps of coral for long periods of time, people forget that we’re there. That means we often overhear conversation. Anywhere Americans gather on the road, I will hear a variation on the following:
“I love this place!” the passing tourist exclaims.
“You should have been here before the hurricane/market crash/election/everything got built up,” responds the seasonal resident.
Shortly, they move on to the crux of the discussion: “The problem with these people is…”
The American Coot is a seasonal visitor to the Bahamas. Some, of course, elect to stay year-round.
I assume this conversation has been happening for as long as people have traveled for fun, and that there are variations in Chinese, Japanese, and every other language. It makes me want a gin-and-tonic on the verandah, reminding me of the sun setting on the British Empire, of Henry James and Rudyard Kipling.
Wiped out. I didn’t like the composition.
Normally, I enjoy listening to it, but I was off my game on Friday. Of course, this had nothing to do with the conversation and everything to do with composition. There is nothing inherently interesting in the shape of inlets on low-elevation, sandy cays. Without some background architecture—jetties, buildings, boats, trees—they are simply a boring ellipse that barely changes color.
On the other hand, the water itself is gorgeous. I want the opportunity to solve this dilemma, but the beach here is too hot for us pasty northerners. We take quick photos and then retreat to the shade of the palms.
Palm and sand, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
We’ve been warmly welcomed by Eva and Karl Dehmel, who have invited us to paint at their beachfront house twice. Here the conversation bounces along far less predictable pathways. I wrote about Eva’s artwork last week; Karl is also a retired doctor and an avid gardener. Were I not on a mission, I’d have been among the palms with him and his machetes.
Karl has a light hand with the jungle, allowing it to sprawl about in its tropical way. The sky holes and traps are very different from those created by northern deciduous trees. I have been painting much more intuitively than normal, eschewing any kind of compositional sketch or pencil drawings. The subject seems to bring out the Fauvist in me.
Boat, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas
“It looks kind of like a Paul Gauguin,” my husband mused, when I showed him Karl’s Garden.
“I think it looks more like a Tommy Bahama shirt,” I responded.
Alas, all good things come to an end, and we said our final goodbyes to Karl and Eva on Sunday evening. As we headed back toward Freeport, I noticed that I was coming out in hives. It was too late to get to the grocery store, which closes at six, and we’d just left the company of two doctors. Talk about bad timing.
The scope of our activities.
I’m an old hand at allergies, however. I figured I could make it through the night without an antihistamine. “You don’t want to go to a Bahamian hospital if you can help it,” Cali Veilleux had told us.
By 11 PM, I was covered with bumps and my lips were swollen. I slathered myself with aloe and debated waking up Bobbi Heath to take me to the Emergency Room. Whether it was a food, bug spray, sunscreen, the sun itself, or something environmental, I’m still swollen and itchy this morning. In a few minutes, however, we can pop over to the store and get some Benadryl. That should be the end of that.