- Rosa BonheurOur PickBy Rosalia Shriver
- Rosa Bonheur - A Life and a LegendOur PickBy Dore Ashton
- Reminiscences of Rosa BoheurBy Theodore Stanton
- Women Painters of the World - free eBookBy Walter Shaw Sparrow
- Women Artists: An Illustrated HistoryBy Nancy Heller
- Nineteenth Century ArtBy Robert Rosenblum and HW Janson
Important Art by Rosa Bonheur
This large oil painting, commissioned and exhibited in 1849 by the French government, was Bonheur's first early success. She primarily depicted animal subjects and here twelve oxen peacefully plough the land in preparation for future planting. Her focus on the land, the animals and the landscape tell a respectful story of timeless peasant life, work, and tradition. The humble sense of realism that emanates from the canvas recalls that work of Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet. Similar to the Realists, Bonheur presents man and nature working seamlessly together to yield harvest from the land.
Bonheur's masterful use of a series of diagonals leads the viewer into and around the sunlit composition. The solid, straight edge of the plowed field recedes from foreground to middle ground. The artist's use of scale and perspective is epic and impressive, and in this sense also recalls the canvases of the Romantics. The two groups of six gleaming Charolais glisten in impressive muscular stride pleasing the eye in their subtle variations of color. The softness, elegance, and muteness of palette also recalls the calm wistful landscapes of earlier Dutch masters, with whose work Bonheur was also very familiar. The artist comments at the time, "I became an animal painter because I loved to move among animals. I would simply study an animal and draw it in the position it took, and when it changed to another position I would draw that."
Bonheur's most famous painting is monumental: eight by sixteen feet. She dedicated herself to the study of draft horses at the dusty, wild horse market in Paris twice a week between 1850 and 1851 where she made endless sketches, some simple line drawings and others in great detail. Her ability to capture the raw power, beauty and strength of the untamed animals in motion is superbly displayed in this dramatic scene. In arriving at the final scheme, the artist drew inspiration from George Stubbs, Théodore Gericault, Eugène Delacroix, and ancient Greek sculpture: she herself referred to The Horse Fair as her own "Parthenon frieze." The Parthenon featured rows of rearing writhing horses in sculpted muscular relief.
The masterful handling of the motion and swirl of dark and light surrounding the pounding, unruly beasts controlled by calm, masterful handlers pulls the viewer into the energy and action of the scene. Bonheur again makes use of a strong diagonal line (as also in Plowing in the Nivernais) in composition where the brooding sky meets the treetops. On the far right, potential buyers calmly look down upon the controlled frenzy from the safety of a wooded hillside. The extremely active middle ground is balanced by the simplicity of the bare foreground and the atmospheric perspective in the background, where we see the outline of the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital. Although some critics described this work as purely an exercise in academic mastery, it is clear too that the artist is an intense observer of both animal and human psychology. Bonheur writes, "The horse is, like man, the most beautiful and most miserable of creatures, only, in the case of man, it is vice or property that makes him ugly. He is responsible for his own decadence, while the horse is only a slave." It is this painting that brought the artist her first fame outside of her own country as engravings of the scene were transported through Europe and to America.
Although the painting is dominated by a dense pack of animals, the dynamic composition incorporates one of Bonheur's most spectacular landscapes. Mules like these were an important means of trade over the mountains; they stream dutifully forward creating a scene of a "Hymn to Work" as described by one critic. The paler distant mountains serve as a backdrop for the artist's "...reverence for the dignity of labor and her visions of human beings in harmony with nature." The bright colors and donkey dressage hints towards more exotic and far away lands in a motif typical of Victorian painters and in particular of Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Attended by three young muleteers, the calmly onward herd fans out across the middle ground in a loosely triangular shape as they descend toward the viewer from a small opening in a craggy pass of the Aspe Mountain. In fact, the entire plan of the composition is made up of triangles created by lines of perspective leading into the central standing figure. The white clothing of the two posed men helps pull the viewer into the middle of the composition, as do the lighter touches of paint on the animals and rutted ground. The attention to details such as the bells and tufted ornaments on the mules bring vitality to the scene. The two distant triangular shapes of misty grey, snowy peaks repeat the design plan. As the biographer Dore Ashton explained, French admirers of the painting praised "...its most glorious and most significant scenery, rendered with a handling akin to old mastership..."
Interestingly here, the protagonist of the scene appears to be a human, whilst all of Bonheur's canvases that follow focus entirely on animals. It is as though the artist needs to show explicitly that she is interested in an interconnectedness between humans and animals in these first three epic canvases, whilst in work to follow she decides that it is when animals stand alone that they convey the strongest messages to humans.