Bonheur, Rosa (1822–1899)

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Bonheur, Rosa (1822–1899)

French painter, famous for her naturalistic depictions of animals, who was one of the most successful women artists of the 19th century. Pronunciation: Bau-NUR. Born Marie Rosalie Bonheur on March 16, 1822, in Bordeaux, France; died of complications following pneumonia in By, France, on May 25, 1899; daughter of Raimond Oscar-Marie Bonheur (an artist

and teacher) andSophie (Marquis) Bonheur ; sister of Juliette Bonheur (1830–1891); lived with artist Nathalie Micas (d. 1889); lived with American artist Anna Klumpke.

Exhibited paintings at the Paris Salon for the first time (1841); exhibited The Horse Fair, her most famous work (1853); awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor (1865); befriended, and painted a portrait of, "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1889).


Rabbits Nibbling Carrots (Musée des Beaux Arts, Bordeaux, France, 1840); Red Oxen of Cantal (1846); Ploughing in the Nivernais or (original version) Labourages Nivernais (Musée National du Château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau, France, 1849); The Horse Fair (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1853); Col. William F. Cody or "Buffalo Bill" Cody (The Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, 1889). Signs work: Rosa Bonheur.

The history of women's art abounds with instances of talent taking a back seat to the demands of family and children: gifted women renounced their careers to become caretakers. Rosa Bonheur took a different route; by eschewing marriage for the companionship of a woman, she gained a freedom from the domestic expectations placed upon her sex which allowed a total dedication to work and study. These circumstances, rare for a woman in any profession, contributed greatly to her achievement of international success and renown.

Rosa's father Raimond Bonheur had married his former drawing pupil Sophie Marquis in 1821. The mystery surrounding Sophie's true heritage (she was the ward of a wealthy merchant and considerably more cultured and well-connected than her spouse) led Rosa in later years to the unfounded belief that she was of aristocratic descent, a factor she believed to have played a part in her success. Born a year after their marriage, Rosa was the first of their four children and raised in loving, if impecunious circumstances, which eventually forced the family to move to Paris in search of work. Though employed as a drawing teacher, Raimond's great interest was in the creed of St. Simonism, a Utopian-socialist sect which took up much of his time and led him, in 1832, to spend some months in a St. Simonian monastery. Here, an egalitarian code assigned new work roles to each member, so Raimond became a gardener, leaving his family behind in a state of destitution. Despite these early privations, the St. Simonian beliefs in equality and the importance of the artist's role in society became primary influences in Rosa's life.

It was this commitment to equality which led Raimond Bonheur to enroll Rosa in a boys' school to enable her to receive an education generally denied to girls. Unperturbed by her singularity, Rosa demonstrated a fearless and confident nature: "I was generally a leader in all the games, and I did not hesitate to use my fists," she later reported. When the death of Sophie Bonheur in 1833 (of "exhaustion") left Raimond with four children to care for, Rosa's formal education was terminated, and she was apprenticed to a dressmaker. Not surprisingly, this occupation failed to suit the boisterous and unruly girl, and her time there was shortlived. Finally, her father succumbed to her wishes to be tutored in painting by him. At home, her training took the traditional route: pencil drawing first, then watercolors, followed by the copying of the Great Masters at the Louvre. By age 14, Rosa was one of the youngest of the many women who, unable to gain access to the art academies, developed their skills with visits to the famous gallery. The other Bonheur children, Auguste, Isidore, and Juliette , followed the same path and eventually worked in the communal family studio.

From an early age, Rosa's primary interest was in the study of animals: her first exhibit at the Paris Salon, in 1840, Rabbits Nibbling Carrots, was a simple work, naturalistically depicted. The entire family worked from live observation of the animals they kept in their barn-like studio, and legend has it that one sheep was carried daily down five flights of stairs by Rosa's brother to be let out to graze. In the tradition of painters such as Jean Louis Gericault, Bonheur supplemented her studio training with frequent drawing trips to the abattoir (slaughterhouse). To avoid unwanted attention, she dressed in men's clothing for these visits, perhaps influenced by the dress code of the famous writer George Sand , whom she much admired. Since the wearing of men's clothes in public was an illegal act for a woman at that time, the artist was awarded a formal Permission de Travestissement by the police which allowed it "for health reasons." Throughout her life, Bonheur was rarely seen in a skirt, and in later years, as other women remained corsetted and constricted, able only to ride sidesaddle, a contemporary described her garb: "She was just dismounting from her horse and was attired in a sort of masculine costume that was really grotesque. It consisted of a frock-coat, loose gray trousers with understraps, boots with spurs, and a queer hat."

Bonheur, Juliette (1830–1891)

French painter. Name variations: Madame Peyrol. Born in 1830; died in 1891; daughter of Raimond Oscar-Marie Bonheur (an artist and teacher), andSophie Marquis Bonheur .

The younger sister of Rosa Bonheur by eight years, Juliette Bonheur "painted sentimental studies of pet animals," writes Germaine Greer , "with a degree of commercial and some academic success."


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1979.

At the Paris Salon of 1845, Bonheur's skills achieved critical recognition for the first time when five of her works were accepted for exhibition and she was awarded a Third Class Medal. The following year, a trip to the Auvergne provided her with the subject matter for Red Oxen of Cantal, a painting which was sold to a British buyer for the (then) huge sum of £600. On the basis of these successes, she received a government commission of 3,000 francs to produce a work on the subject of ploughing. The result—Ploughing in the Nivernais (or Labourages Nivernais)—established her reputation as an animal painter and so laid the foundation for lifelong

financial security. Inspired by a George Sand story, the painting depicts six pairs of oxen being driven in two teams as they plough the rich sienna earth under a clear blue sky. On exhibition, the work inspired great fervor from contemporary critics: "it charts the labor of the earth accomplished like a sacred rite by the peasant, sublime in his inferiority, the secret agent of the mysterious process of nature," gushed Eugène de Montrosier. In the surge of republicanism following the revolution of 1848, during which King Louis Phillippe had fled the country, the intelligentsia was seized with romantic notions of the life of the "noble peasant," and, though some critics noted the poor representation of her human figures, Bonheur's painting provided an apposite image.

In 1849, Raimond Bonheur was given the directorship of the School of Drawing for Young Girls in Paris, a role which was taken over by Rosa on his death only a few months later. For the next decade, in spite of her fame, she continued to teach there, supported by her sister, Juliette. Meanwhile her brother, Isidore, was achieving recognition as a sculptor, and it is thought that Rosa, though skilled, gave up this practice in deference to him.

In spite of her avowed socialist commitment, Bonheur had no difficulty in adapting to the new political milieu brought about when Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, became emperor in 1852. Government commissions continued as her popular representations of realistic bucolic scenes complemented the current mood of the people, especially the growing bourgeoisie which had rejected history and religious paintings for representations they could understand. For many years, with prospective buyers flocking to her studio, Bonheur no longer needed to exhibit at the Paris Salon.

Since 1836, Rosa had spent much of her time with the family of her closest friend, Nathalie Micas . In the absence of her own mother, the Micas' had almost adopted her as their second daughter and cared for Bonheur's everyday needs. When Rosa went to live with them following Raimond's death, Nathalie came to play the role typically taken by an artist's wife: keeping house, protecting her from unwanted visitors, and providing emotional support. Nathalie was also a painter, though of disputable talent, who loved to dress in gypsy costume and was given to displays of jealous rage. Despite these foibles, Rosa's devotion to her was evident, and the relationship fulfilled the needs of both women.

Rosa returned to the Paris Salon in 1853 with her masterpiece, The Horse Fair. This huge canvas—almost 16 feet wide—attracted legions of viewers, drawn both by its unique size for an animal painting and by the astonishing fact that it was the work of a young woman. The result of two years of painstaking study of equine physiognomy, The Horse Fair represents a circle of horses being led around and displayed for sale. "As the powerful horses reel and plunge and their handlers strain to control them in what seems to be a near-stampede," observes Rosalia Shriver , "one can almost hear the shouting and snorting and feel the ground shake under the assault of the hooves." Such was the success of the painting that Rosa was declared hors de concours, a title bestowed upon artists whose work was outstanding enough to release them from the normal procedure of submitting Salon entries to a jury.

After Bonheur's home town of Bordeaux refused to buy the painting for the bargain price of 12,000 francs on the grounds that it was too expensive for a work by a woman, it was eventually purchased by a Belgian art dealer, Ernest Gambart. Many art historians feel that Gambart subsequently played a large part in ensuring the continued popularity of Bonheur's work. An astute operator within the art market, he had already established a clientele among the industrial merchant class of England and recognized the potential appeal of Bonheur's paintings. The Horse Fair was transported to England, amid great advertisement and fanfare, where it was displayed to critical acclaim and taken to Windsor Castle on Queen Victoria 's request, thus ensuring even greater public attention. Eulogies

and poems were written on the subject, and the Sunday Times of July 29, 1855, wrote, "It is not only a complicated representation of animal life, executed with wondrous force and precision, but it is a grand composition, pervaded by a manly thought, which could hardly be conceived possible in a work executed by a female hand."

The following year, Gambart introduced the painter herself to Britain, providing the opportunity for Rosa to meet with the most famous of contemporary animal painters, Edwin Landseer. He was captivated by the French woman, joking, in spite of his known commitment to bachelorhood, that he would like to become "Sir Edwin Bonheur." Although she remained a great admirer and collector of Landseer's work, Bonheur never subscribed to the romantic and anthropomorphic imagery which was his trademark, preferring instead to capture the movements of animals in a truly natural state. Both Rosa and Nathalie (who accompanied her on all her trips) were enchanted by the mists and heather of the Highlands of Scotland where the unusual breeds of cattle and sheep inspired the artist to make sketches which would provide the basis for the next few years of her work. (They also arranged for the shipping of some of these beasts back to their home in France to be observed at leisure.) Victorian England, with its obsessive and romantic views of animals, provided the main source of revenue for Bonheur in the decade of the 1860s.

The point of departure must always be a vision of the truth. The eye is the route of the soul, and the pencil or brush must sincerely and naively reproduce what it sees.

—Rosa Bonheur

Not content with the British success of The Horse Fair, Gambart sent the painting to the U.S. where it arrived in New York in 1857 to begin a three-year tour. He had extended its appeal by selling the rights to lithograph reproductions. "Every copy will be a magnificent specimen of art, forming a parlor ornament unsurpassed in interest by anything ever before issued on this side of the Atlantic," boasted a journal. Newspapers published special editions with the lithograph as a "free gift" and it is believed that The Horse Fair became the most universally recognized painting in North America in the mid-19th century.

In 1860, Rosa and Nathalie, seeking a more reclusive existence, moved into the small château at By, on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau. The social demands of fame had become tiresome, and gossip surrounding their relationship, fuelled by Rosa's eccentric dress and statements like, "The fact is, in the way of males, I like only the bulls I paint," had increased. Fewer and fewer guests were received, and Bonheur worked mainly on foreign commissions, inciting criticism that she had rejected her native France.

In 1865, while working, Rosa was surprised by the entrance of the Empress Eugenie , who had come to bestow the highest award of the state—the Cross of the Legion of Honor—for the first time upon a woman artist. As she became less republican in her later years, Bonheur loved to tell the tale of this visit, evincing an unerring loyalty to the empress and a fascination with the life of the nobility. The patriotic fervor of which she was capable was evidenced during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when, dressed in her usual men's clothes, she joined the home guard and practiced drill with a gun. When the other inhabitants of the small village of By rejected invitations to support her, she began an almost solitary mission to withhold the enemy, drafting plans in the event of being captured which included eating her own pets. When the village was taken and officers were billeted in the château, Rosa refused to speak with them and continued a campaign of small rebellious acts.

In a break with the themes of previous decades which had focused on domestic or working animals, Bonheur became more interested in felines in later life. When trips to the zoo provided insufficient material for her work, a pair of lions were shipped to the château at By, enabling continuous observation and adding exoticism to the existing menagerie. The United States and the life of the "wild west" also sparked Rosa's imagination. When Buffalo Bill's "Exposition of the Wild West," arrived in Paris, in 1889, complete with buffalo and famous Western characters like the sharp-shooting Annie Oakley , Bonheur was quick to invite Mr. William Cody to the château. She soon became a frequent visitor to his camp, making sketches of both animals and humans, and producing many paintings on these themes. Her portrait of "Buffalo Bill" Cody, seated on his favorite horse, became a familiar image to most Americans and the prized possession, legend has it, of William Cody who, on hearing that his house was burning down, implored his wife to leave everything but the "Rosa Bonheur."

Nathalie Micas died in June 1889, leaving Rosa to practice her painstakingly naturalistic form of representation in the face of growing criticism from French critics who now preferred the Impressionist painters such as Renoir and Monet. Commissions from abroad remained constant, however, providing a steady source of work and income until her death. This wane in popularity at home was exacerbated by unfounded reports that, not only was she an eccentric lesbian, but she was of Jewish origin, at a time when overt anti-Semitism was in vogue. Happiness came again towards the end of her life when the American artist, Anna Klumpke , became her constant companion and sole beneficiary of her will, living with Rosa for the short time until Bonheur died, following a bout of pneumonia, on May 25, 1899.

Klumpke, Anna Elizabeth (1856–1942)

American painter of portraits and landscapes. Born Anna Elizabeth Klumpke in 1856; died in 1942; daughter of Dorothea Tolle Klumpke and John Gerard Klumpke (a San Francisco real-estate magnate); attended Académie Julian, 1883–84; studied with Tony Robert-Fleury and Jules Lefebvre in Paris; sister of Augusta Klumpke (1859–1927), Dorothea Klumpke (1861–1942), andMatilda andJulia Klumpke .

Anna Klumpke had four sisters: Augusta Klumpke was the first woman intern at a Paris hospital and wrote a book on nervous pathology with her husband Joseph Jules Dejerine; Dorothea Klumpke had a doctorate in mathematics from the Sorbonne and became an astronomer. Julia Klumpke was a violinist composer; and Matilda Klumpke was a pianist. Anna became an artist. The four sisters owed their success to their strong-willed mother, Dorothea Tolle Klumpke , who left her prosperous husband with his real-estate holdings back in San Francisco and took her girls to Switzerland where they were privately tutored.

Anna Klumpke, whose work won many prizes, became a companion of her mentor Rosa Bonheur in 1898. After Bonheur's death the following year, Klumpke inherited Bonheur's studio-estate at By and wrote a biography, Rosa Bonheur, sa vie, son oeuvre (1908). She also painted portraits of Bonheur and Elizabeth Cady Stanton . In 1940, Anna Klumpke published her autobiography Memoirs of an Artist.

suggested reading:

Klumpke, Anna. Rosa Bonheur: The Artist's (Auto)biography. Translated by Gretchen van Slyke. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

At the peak of her fame, Rosa Bonheur was known by many as the "Greatest Woman Artist ever," the kind of praise, notes Germaine Greer , that diminishes all other women in honoring one. The false praise is "meted out to token women, single individuals whose recognition is taken to absolve the observer from a charge of prejudice and to give him licence to denigrate or ignore all the other women in the same category." In spite of declining popularity in France, Bonheur's works were collected avidly: the studio sale after her death realized over 2 million francs. But modern reappraisal of her work often regards it as being overestimated. Greer believes her success to have been "a nice coincidence of the work with the tastes and preoccupations of the time" though real genius was "revealed in patches." Even so, Bonheur remains one of the most renowned names in the history of women's art.


Ashton, Dore, and Denise Hare. Rosa Bonheur—A Life and A Legend. NY: Viking Press, 1981.

Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1979.

Lepelle de Bois-Gallais, F. Memoir of M'mselle Rosa Bonheur. Translated by James Parry. NY: Williams, Stevens, Williams, 1857.

Shriver, Rosalia. Rosa Bonheur with a checklist of works in American Collections. Associated University Presses, 1982.

suggested reading:

Klumpke, Anna. Rosa Bonheur: The Artist's (Auto)biography. Translated by Gretchen van Slyke. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Stanton, Theodore. Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur. NY: Appleton, 1910.

Diane Moody , freelance writer, London, England