Progression of Art
Plowing in the Nivernais
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."
Oil on canvas - Musée Nationale du Chateau de Fountainebleau, France
The Horse Fair
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.
Oil on Canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Spanish Muleteers Crossing the Pyrenees
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.
Oil on Canvas - Private Collection
Sheep by the Sea
This small painting, less than thirteen inches by eighteen inches, was painted after a summer trip through the Highlands of Scotland in 1855, a landscape that Bonheur fell in love with. The gentle animals are shown huddled together on the land overlooking a body of water. The artist's dedication to anatomical accuracy and direct observation of nature is evident in the careful details of the animals, the rocks and grasses, as well as the distant seascape. In both scale and subject the work is quite radically different to the artist's previous output. More intimate and without the presence of people, the picture seems to 'say' so much more.
Here we see two ewes and one growing lamb. This family grouping of sheep on the rocks is a subject to which Bonheur returns repeatly throughout her career. A direct parrellel can be made between this work and the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt's Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) (1852). Hunt's version of the same subject makes symbolism more obvious. The sheep stray to the edge of the cliff, as though in bibical reminder to be a good and moral person. Bonheur leaves her creatures peacefully sitting but it is impossible not to recall righteousness when presented with images of the 'sheep and the goats'. Bonheur perhaps subtlely asserts that 'good' and 'bad' are too stark of assertions, for in her works, two ewes, or a black and a white sheep (in other similar works) live unjudged and harmoniously together.
Bonheur exhibited Sheep by the Sea at the Salon of 1867 although Empress Eugenie of France had commissioned the painting herself. Like her contemporary, Queen Victoria, and also the upper classes of England and France, the French Empress loved paintings of animals. Writer Paul-Louis Hervier said of Bonheur's work in 1908 that it was "...simple, welcoming, of an extreme frankness", and of the artist herself, "she was loved by all; because of her good heart, her generosity, her simplicity, which were not studied but spontaneous... "
Oil on Cradled Panel - National Museum of Women Artists, Washington, D.C.
Weaning the Calves
This relatively small painting, less than six feet sqaure, depicts a real life situation in the rustic mountain home of a mother and her calves. The stalwart cow stands watch while her five calves remain separated from her by a barrier of fallen wood, rocks, and debris. The artist shows us a version of fence-line weaning in which the calves see and hear their mother but are forced to find food and water for themselves. The message surrounds the parent-infant relationship and suggests that early independence, even when forced, may in fact be strenghting. The mountains in the background are majestic and in line with Romanic sensibility, whilst the foreground depicts rugged and earthy everyday life for cattle. Bonheur's attention to detail as is typical is impeccable, scientific, and flawless. The endless variations in the rocky land, sharply snapped timbers, and touches of snow present an uncomfortable, barren, and hostile environment, whilst the animals seem alert, patient, and peaceful as they trust in the resolution of their separation.
The painting likely grew from one of the many observational studies created by the artist during her extended trip around the UK in the 1850s. She was in fact criticized by the French art world for her affinity with Scottish and English landscape, especially by Thoré-Bürger, who wrote "...she exhibits ten of her notable works...all belonging to the English aristocracy except the Sheep that the Empress of France has saved from being transported across the sea...After the success of The Horse Fair... pictures have their reddish tone, undecided touch, glassy and mannered effect..." Such criticism did not deter Bonheur from international acclaim for boundaries in any form, national, or otherwise did not interest this inherently open-minded woman.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
The Lion at Home
From the 1870s onwards, Bonheur began to study and sketch lions and to master the characteristics of their movements. She herself kept her own menagerie of creatures and amongst these she had lions, so the handsome specimens, however exotic, do have grounding in observational reality. There was a thriving foreign animal trade during the Victorian era, and Edwin Lanseer in Britain also had access to and painted lions. This display of unusual animals was typically to parade Empire and show the world that Europe had presence in all far away lands. However, for Bonheur, the interest does not appear imperalialist in any way but more about what it means to be a single lion and what it means to be part of a group. She painted many prides and family sets of lions, but equally lots of striking individual portraits of these commanding and beautiful creatures.
Oil on canvas
Portrait of Colonel William F. Cody
The artist became very interested in American culture, the native Indians, and the Wild West in her later years. This small painting, less than eighteen by sixteen inches, depicts Colonel Cody or 'Buffalo Bill' on his favorite white horse. Buffalo Bill had come to Paris with his renowned Wild West Show and performed there for more than seven months. Set in beautiful landscape, the scene shows good symbiosis of man and animal, presented as a grand and noble force when working together.
During this time, Bonheur received permission to visit the Wild West Show's encampment, which occupied thirty-six acres near the Bois de Boulogne and the Eiffel Tower. She lept at the opportunity and went almost daily to observe and sketch. She met Colonel Cody and his wide array of performers from all over the world who had thrilled the Parisians. She commented on the show and on the plight of the native Americans "...I was thus able to examine their tents at my ease. I was present at family scenes...conversed as best I could with warriors...made studies of the bisons, horses, and arms. I have a veritable passion, you know, for this unfortunate race and I deplore that it is disappearing before the white unsurpers."
Here the Colonel and his favorite horse are placed in the center and command the composition. The artist's many years of studying the anatomy of the horse and its movement are evident. As the biographer Dore Ashton explained, Rosa advised "...One must know what is under their skin. Otherwise your animal will look like a mat rather than a tiger..." The artist's mastery of brushwork, light and dark and subtle changes in color create a solid dignified portrait. Of the approximately seventeen paintings and countless drawings made of the Wild West Show, this handsome portrait of Colonel William F. Cody on his elegant white horse became the most widely admired and reproduced. The artist gained many American clients and she appreciated the more progressive treatment of women in the United States. Bonheur said, "...If America marches at the forefront of modern civilization...it is because of their admirably intelligent manner of bringing up their daughters and the respect they have for their women."
Oil On Canvas - Whitney Western Art Museum, Cody, Wyoming