She dressed for success

“Ploughing in the Nivernais” by Rosa Bonheur, Musee d’Orsay, France.

The artist Auguste Renoir said, “I consider women writers, lawyers, and politicians as monsters and nothing but five-legged calves.  The woman artist is merely ridiculous, but I am in favor of the female singer and dancer.” However, despite her century’s attitude toward women exemplified by Renoir’s comments, the woman artist Marie-Rosalie Bonheur (1822-1899) managed to think, paint and live as she chose.  She refused to conform to society’s expectations, saying, “I have no patience for women who ask permission to think.” 

     Artist Bonheur was a French anamiliere (painter of animals) and realist artist, and one of few female sculptors.  She was the eldest child in a family of artists..  Her mother, who died when Rosa was only 11, had been a piano teacher.  Her younger siblings included two animal painters and an animal sculptor.  Her father, an artist, belonged to a group that believed in equality of the sexes.  He was also the director of an art school for girls.

“Rosa Bonheur” by Edouard Louis Dubufe.

     Rosa, from all accounts, was an unruly child and had great difficulty learning to read.  Her mother finally taught her to read and write by having her select and draw an animal for each letter of the alphabet.  Rosa always attributed her love for animals to this training from her mother.  Although Rosa was sent to school like her brothers, she was disruptive in the classroom and was expelled from a number of schools.  Finally, when she was 12, her father took it upon himself to educate her and teach her to paint.

     At age 14 Rosa began copying from paintings at the Louvre, and studied animal anatomy by visiting the slaughterhouses of Paris and performing dissections of animals at the National Veterinary Institute in Paris.           

     She enjoyed painting all animals, but especially loved painting large farm animals like horses, cows and bulls.   At 26, she received a gold medal at the Salon of 1848, and this led to her begin commissioned by the French government to paint a picture of peasants ploughing a field with a team of oxen, “Ploughing in the Nivernais.”  This became one of her most famous works, another being “The Horse Fair” (1855), which measured 8 feet high by 16 feet wide and depicted the horse market in Paris.  “The Horse Fair” led to international fame and recognition.  Rosa was the first woman to receive the award of Officier de la Legion d’Honneur.

     Rosa was deeply involved in the early women’s movement, and belonged to the Union of Women Painters and Sculptors.  She encouraged women to be strong and think for themselves rather than bowing to the ideals of male-dominated society.  Rosa exemplified the strong, unconventional woman.  She smoked cigars and cigarettes, spoke her mind freely, and during the Franco-Prussian War she trained with a rifle to defend her town from attack. 

     Rosa found that that women’s clothing was too restrictive for slogging across manure-filled farmyards and dealing with large animals, so she wore men’s clothing on painting expeditions.  To cross-dress in public, she had to get a permit from the French police, signed by her doctor and renewable every six months.  She commented that “the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else.  The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me…” 

Rosa Bonheur (1880-90) in the garden of her Château at By.

     Rosa lived for 50 years with her female companion, Nathalie Micas, at the Micas chateau.  The two women had been best friends since the age of 12, when Rosa’s father had painted a portrait of Nathalie.  Having experienced the freedom of dressing in men’s clothing, Rosa and Nathalie often took vacations in drag to escape the constrictions that society placed on women traveling without a male companion.

     After Nathalie’s death, Rosa lived the last year of her life with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke while Klumpke helped Rosa write her autobiography and painted her portrait.  Because of these relationships and the fact that Bonheur never married, some current scholars claim that she was a lesbian.  However, no such claims were made in 19th and early 20th century accounts of her life.  All we can be sure of is that she was a remarkable woman who lived exactly as she wanted to.

     Rosa Bonheur died at age 77.  Her paintings of domesticated animals are still considered to be among the best ever done.

Published by on January 2014. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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