Painting animals, particularly those on farms, has a long tradition and became popular during the Dutch Golden Age, and more widely across Europe during the eighteenth century. It came to a peak in the mid-nineteenth century with the most famous animal painter of all, and one of the best-known women artists of that century, Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), whose bicentenary is next week. In this article and its sequel on the anniversary of her birth, I look briefly at her career and paintings.
Born as Marie-Rosalie Bonheur in Bordeaux, her father and uncles were established painters and sculptors, and believed in the education of girls alongside boys. The family moved to Paris when she was a child, and she quickly showed herself to be enthusiastic in drawing. Her childhood was tumultuous, though, because of her disruptive behaviour and resulting expulsions from school. Her teachers must have been relieved when she started an apprenticeship as a seamstress, but at the age of twelve her father finally had to accept that she could only train as a painter.
She proved a precocious student, starting to copy paintings in the Louvre when she was only fourteen, where she first encountered the animal paintings of Paulus Potter and others. She later dissected animals and studied their anatomy at the National Veterinary Institute in Paris as further training for her chosen specialty. This conveniently avoided the big taboo over women painting human figures, which was traditionally taught in life classes, where models are undressed, thus unacceptable for a woman of the day.
She had her first work accepted for the Salon in 1841, before she was even twenty: it showed two rabbits, and in the Salon of 1845 she was awarded a third-class medal. She also started making sculptures in the early 1840s, with some fine bronzes of sheep dating from 1842, and cattle from 1846, for example.
Ploughing in Nevers (1849) was her first major success, a government commission which was exhibited in the Salon that year. Ploughing was one of the favourite themes of her early career. Faithful depiction of the two teams of Charolais oxen is demanding on anatomical knowledge, and here incorporates a fine landscape with rich colours and textures. Ploughing is also one of the most fundamental agricultural tasks, with extensive symbolism, including the combined teamwork of the ploughman and animals.
A Herdsman with his Flock (1852) gave her the opportunity to show a wider range of animals typical of a small farm, to explore the wonderful dappled light, and to paint an open woodland setting.
In her Ploughing Scene from 1854, the animals are less dominant, and she strikes a balance in favour of the landscape as a whole, with its vertiginous haystacks, and the land itself.
Bonheur painted two heavily laden carts with their working horses in Return from the Fields in the same year. This was exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in London.
The Horse Fair (1852-55) is probably her most famous painting today, and was a great success when it was first exhibited in London in 1854. The market is set in Paris – perhaps a surprising location today, but still with rural areas at the time. The line of trees marks the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, and in the distance is the distinctive dome of La Salpêtrière.
By 1855, Bonheur had achieved international fame, and was even more celebrated in the UK than in her native France. She travelled to Scotland, meeting Queen Victoria during her visit; the Queen, who was a keen amateur painter in watercolours and loved animal paintings, already admired Bonheur’s work. When in Scotland she sketched and made studies for several paintings which she completed over the following years. Her British dealer had many of her paintings engraved by Charles George Lewis (1808-1880), one of the best of the time.
Although dominated by the mules themselves, her Spanish Muleteers Crossing the Pyrenees (1857) incorporates one of her most spectacular landscapes, some of which she painted in collaboration with her father. Mules like these were at the time an important means of trade over the Pyrenees, via traditional routes over passes which had been used by animals and humans for millennia.
The Highland Shepherd (1859) is one of the finished paintings resulting from her 1855 visit to Scotland. At the time, the Highland Clearances had entered their final phases, and the sheep being driven here were probably the sole occupants of much of the landscape behind them. Earlier towns and villages had been emptied, their occupants evicted by largely absentee landlords over the previous two centuries.
In 1860, Bonheur bought the Château of By, in the village of Thomery, near Barbizon, the spiritual home of the Barbizon School. She apparently kept various domestic and more exotic animals there, some of which served as her models.
A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape (1861) was another of the finished paintings which she made from her visit to Scotland.
Bonheur also painted some fine watercolours, including her Deer in the Forest of Fontainebleau (1862), set not far from her home.
Another of Bonheur’s Scottish series is Changing Pastures, painted the following year. This flock of sheep is being rowed to fresh grazing on an island in a loch.
Luez P ed. (2016) Rosa Bonheur at sa Famille, Trois Générations d’Artistes, RMN. ISBN 978 2 7118 6336 5. (In French.)