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Bonheur, Rosa (1822-1899)  
 
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The most popular artist of nineteenth-century France, Rosa Bonheur was also one of the first renowned painters of animals and the first woman awarded the Grand Cross by the French Legion of Honor. A professional artist with a successful career, Bonheur lived in two consecutive committed relationships with women.

Born on March 16, 1822 in Bordeaux, Marie Rosalie Bonheur was the oldest of the four children of Raimond Oscar Bonheur (1796-1849) and Sophie Marquis. Bonheur's father was an art teacher who came from a poor family, while her mother, a musician, had descended from a middle-class family and had been her husband's art student.

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Bonheur's father, who taught drawing and landscape painting, was an ardent member of the utopian Saint Simeon society. The group held idealistic beliefs about the reform of work, property, marriage, and the role of women in society. Most importantly, for the artist's future, the Saint Simeons questioned traditional gender norms and firmly believed in the equality of women. While teaching artistic techniques to his oldest daughter, Raimond Bonheur also encouraged her independence and taught her to consider art as a career.

In 1828 Raimond Bonheur joined the Saint Simeons at their retreat outside Paris. Sophie and the children joined him in Paris the following year. Four years later, however, Raimond abandoned his family to live in isolation with his fellow Saint Simeons.

Sophie Bonheur died in 1833 at the age of thirty-six. Rosa was only eleven years old when her mother died, but she was aware of the heavy price her mother paid for married life with a man who was more dedicated to his own ideals than to meeting his family's needs. Rosa also saw that her mother's marriage led to poverty and her death from exhaustion.

After her mother's death, Bonheur was taken in by the Micas family who resided nearby. Mme Micas and Bonheur's mother had been friends. When Mme Bonheur died, the Micas family paid Raimond Bonheur's debts and cared for Rosa. Their daughter, Nathalie, who would later become an amateur inventor and unschooled veterinarian, and Rosa became enamored with each other.

When Rosa Bonheur began her career as a professional artist, she had already been trained by her father who had allowed her to study in all male classes. Rosa also learned by sketching masterworks at the Louvre from the age of fourteen, and later, by studying with Léon Cogniet.

From the very beginning, Bonheur's favorite subject was animals. She learned their anatomy completely by dissecting them in local slaughterhouses. She also visited the horse market two times a week. Study of animals by direct observation led to the formation of the realist style in which Bonheur worked.

It was for such work that Bonheur obtained written permission from the French government to wear men's slacks. Her working attire also consisted of a loose smock and heavy boots that protected her feet from the dangerous environment in which she painted. The style of dress that the artist adopted for work and home may well have been influenced by her father's attire, which was based on St. Simeonian clothing experiments. Bonheur also cropped her hair, perhaps to facilitate her work. She did, however, always wear dresses for social occasions because she knew that appropriate dress would further her career.

Bonheur earned a successful living as a painter of animals. She exhibited at the annual Paris Salon regularly from the age of nineteen in 1841 through 1853, when she was thirty-one. She won the salon's gold medal at the age of twenty-six in 1848 and was commissioned by the French government to paint Plowing on the Nivernais in 1849. In the same year Bonheur and her sister Juliette became directors of l'École gratuite de dessin pour les jeunes filles, a post their father had once held.

Bonheur completed her most renowned work, The Horse Fair, in 1855. The successful representation of percherons (a breed native to Normandy) was purchased by Ernest Gambart, a London art dealer whose gallery specialized in work by French artists. He exhibited The Horse Fair in London where Bonheur visited with Nathalie. Queen Victoria requested a private viewing of the painting at Windsor Castle. It would later be purchased in 1887 by Cornelius Vanderbilt and donated to the new Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Bonheur's trip to England allowed her to meet Charles Eastlake, then President of the Royal Academy, John Ruskin, the English writer and critic, and Edwin Landseer, the British animalier. She also toured the English and Scottish countrysides and executed some paintings based on her observations of new breeds of animals found there.

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zoom in
top: An engraving of Rosa Bonheur.
above: The Horse Fair (1855), Bonheur's most renowned painting (above).

  
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