Animalière Extraordinaire: the bicentenary of Rosa Bonheur 2

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), The King Watches (1887), watercolor on paper, 55.9 × 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Two hundred years ago today, the most celebrated animal painter and woman artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) was born in Bordeaux, France. In the first of these two articles celebrating her career and paintings, I had reached 1865, the year that she was admitted to the Legion of Honour.
Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), The Farm at the Entrance of the Wood (1860-80), oil on fabric, 28.4 x 40.3 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

At some time between 1860 and 1880, when she was living in the Château of By, in the village of Thomery, near Barbizon, she painted this landscape view of The Farm at the Entrance of the Wood, as if declaring her own affinity to the Barbizon School.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), The Wounded Eagle (c 1870), oil on canvas, 147.6 x 114.6 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

The Wounded Eagle from about 1870 wasn’t her first painting of a bird: one of her earliest oil paintings, probably from around 1842, shows four pigeons. However, birds of prey were perhaps more appropriate for her later career.
Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Return from the Horse Fair (1873), watercolour and gouache over graphite, 25.9 x 56.7 cm, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Return from the Horse Fair, from 1873, revisits her earlier successful theme of horse fairs in a highly dynamic watercolour. Three riders struggle to control their horses as they pass through a gateway.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Oxen Ploughing (1875), oil on canvas, 68.6 × 101.6 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Her later paintings, such as Oxen Ploughing (1875), became slightly looser in brushwork, particularly in vegetation and the background landscape, in response to the influence of Impressionism.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Highland Cattle (1876), oil on canvas, 64.7 x 83 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

As late as 1876 she was still painting motifs from her visit to Scotland, here of Highland Cattle, although these look more typical of those in the Pyrenees than the Scottish Highlands.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Weaning the Calves (1879), oil on canvas, 65.1 × 81.3 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Her Weaning the Calves (1879) is set in a glorious summer Alpine or Pyrenean landscape, with a dry stone herdsman’s hut at the left. Herdsmen in those mountainous areas lived away from their families, in the mountain grazing lands, for the summer season, with their herds and flocks – the transhumance, a separation which is still remembered by the older populations there.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), The King Watches (1887), watercolour on paper, 55.9 × 77.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Bonheur had an admitted preference for powerful animals, oxen with their brute strength, and lions, as in her The King Watches (1887), another of her outstanding watercolours.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) (1889), oil on canvas, 47 × 38.7 cm, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY. Wikimedia Commons.

Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) (1889) shows this famous showman, who toured Europe with his Wild West Exhibition. This reached Paris in 1889, and Bonheur visited the showground to sketch the American species and breeds there. She invited Cody to her château, where she painted this portrait of him.

Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Deer and Faun in a Wood (1893), oil on canvas, 32.5 × 41 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Deer and Faun in a Wood (1893) shows the fauna of the woodland near her home, using captive models. The following year, when she was seventy-one, she was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honour, the first woman artist to do so.

She died in the Château of By, Thomery, France, on 25 May 1899, at the age of seventy-seven. Her achievements opened the door for many subsequent women artists, and her openness about her long-term relationship with another woman artist broke new ground. We have a great deal to celebrate in her life and art.



Luez P ed. (2016) Rosa Bonheur at sa Famille, Trois Générations d’Artistes, RMN. ISBN 978 2 7118 6336 5. (In French.)