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.