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Rosa Bonheur: The Animalier of Realist Tradition

By André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (French, 1819 - 1889) (1819 - 1889) – photographer (French)Details of artist on Google Art Project - eAFbxHg4K5vgbA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Link

Depicting animals and rural scenes with remarkable accuracy and detail which accentuated by a lighter palette and the use of a highly polished surface finish, the French artist, Rosa Bonheur, is acclaimed as the foremost “animalier”, or animal painter, linked with landscape painting and the Realist tradition of the mid-nineteenth century.

Born Marie-Rosalie Bonheur in Bordeaux, France on March 16, 1822, the young Rosa moved to Paris with her family in 1829. She was trained by her father, Raymond Bonheur, an art teacher, a professional landscape painter and a follower of the social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon. In 1836, three years after her mother’s death, Bonheur met Nathalie Micas, who became a lifelong companion.

By the time Bonheur was in her teens, her talent for sketching live animals had manifested itself, and, rejecting training as a seamstress, she began studying animal motion and forms on farms, in stockyards, and at animal markets, horse fairs, and slaughterhouses, observing and sketching them and gaining an intimate knowledge of animal anatomy. While unconventional in her ambitions and personal conduct, Bonheur was traditional in her working method. She studied her subject carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas.

Bonheur’s sketching visits to those public places that were largely the domain of men, as well as her work in the studio, prompted her to eschew traditional female clothing for the trousers and loose blouse of a male peasant. She continued to dress in masculine attire for the rest of her life, though she came to be mocked and disparaged for her garb.

Bonheur’s reputation grew steadily in the 1840s, and she regularly exhibited her animal paintings and sculptures at the Paris Salon, which favored traditional work, from 1841 to 1853. In 1845, she won the third prize, and in 1848, a gold medal. She also made a number of sketching trips to such regions as Auvergne and the Pyrenees, as well as to London, Birmingham, and Scotland.

In the 1950s, Bonheur’s work rapidly gained popularity in the United States and Britain. In 1853, she won international acclaim for her monumental painting “The Horse Fair” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which was exhibited in England and which Queen Victoria greatly admired. Her work sold so well that in 1860 she was able to purchase an estate with a chateau, at By, near Fontainebleau.

Bonheur was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1865. In the 1870s, she began to study and sketch lions and to master the characteristics of their movement. She also raised some lions on her estate. In addition to animals, Bonheur was intrigued by the legends of the American West. When “Buffalo Bill” Cody took his wild west show to Paris in 1889, she befriended him and sketched his encampment and its denizens, as well as painting his portrait on horseback.

A commercially successful painter in an era when few women were able to pursue a career in the arts, Rosa Bonheur defined herself outside of the social and legal code of her time. The woman, who served as a role model for future generations of women artists, died in By, France on May 25, 1899.


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