Biography of Rosa Bonheur
Childhood and Education
Rosa Bonheur (née Marie-Rosalie) was the oldest of four children, two girls and two boys, born to an idealistic artist father, Oscar-Raymond, and a patient piano teacher mother, Sophie. Interestingly, all four of the children grew to be talented and successful artists. The family moved from rural Bordeaux to Paris in 1829 when Rosa was six years old. She was a rambunctious child who enjoyed sketching as soon as she could hold a pencil, but initially struggled with reading and writing. Her mother helped her to learn basic literacy by asking her daughter to draw an animal for each letter of the alphabet. Rosa recalled "...One day she had a bright idea...She told me to draw an ass opposite the A and a cow opposite the C and so on..." Following her mother's ingenious method, Bonheur always credited her, and this moment in life for her enduring love and deep understanding of animals.
Life in the busy city of Paris was different from the calm country life of Bordeaux. Bonheur's father subscribed to the Saint-Simonian philosophy, which adhered to Utopian socialist values and supported a vision of universal harmony that included total sexual equality. Bonheur recalled "...This was, I believe, the first pronounced step in a course which my father always pursued...named co-education...I was generally a leader in all the games...I did not hesitate now and again to use my fists...a masculine bent was given to my existence..." Oscar-Raymond believed so resolutely in the education and equality of women that he became director for a time of the only available free drawing school for girls that had been founded in Paris under state sponsorship in 1803. After their father's death, Bonheur and one of her sisters took over his position as head of the school.
When Bonheur was only ten a cholera epidemic was sweeping through France. Her father was embroiled in his political and philosophical pursuits and her mother was exhausted. The family did their best to remain indoors to remain free from the disease. Although the children and father all survived, their mother, Sophie fell ill and died at the age of 36.
Bonheur's father attempted to send Rosa to a boarding school run by Mme. Gilbert at this point but the exercise failed miserably, with the artist reporting, "...The Gilberts refused to harbor any longer such a noisy creature as I and sent me back home in disgrace...my tomboy manners had an unfortunate influence on my companions, who soon grew turbulent... " Undeterred by his daughter's unruly behavior at school, Raymond Bonheur decided it better to begin his daughter's art training himself knowing that women were not allowed to attend formal art schools. At this time, he was also studying the writings of George Sands and Felicité Robert Lamennais who both proposed that every creature has a soul, information that he shared with Bonheur and satisfied their mutual respect for animals. At the age of 13 Bonheur began working in her father's studio to complete daily assigned tasks. Her training included pencil drawings of plaster casts, engravings, and still lifes. Once, whilst her father was out, Bonheur embarked on a study of cherries. Upon his return, her father realized the full extent of her talent and encouraged her from thenceforth to work from nature, painting primarily landscapes, animals, and birds.
At the age of 14, in 1836, Bonheur's father sent her to study painting and sculpture at the Louvre where she was one of the youngest students. She continued to work in the family studio which she described as "...a confusion of all sorts of odds and ends..." whilst at the same time attending the Louvre where the students copied the Dutch master paintings such as the work of Paulus Potter, Wouvermans, and Van Berghem. When she was 19, her father leased an apartment in which she was allowed to keep a menagerie of small animals: a goat, chickens, quail, canaries and finches. The apartment was located on Rue Rumford, a section of Paris close to fields, farms, and animals, where Bonheur and her three younger siblings could develop their immense talent through realistic drawing and painting. She was said to also frequent "masculine" areas such as horse fairs and the slaughterhouses of Paris in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ranges of animal emotion and physiognomy, however gruesome the latter may have been.
Also in 1842, a friend of the Bonheur family, Monsieur Micas, commissioned her father to paint a portrait of his daughter Nathalie, then 12, who was rather sickly. Although older, Bonheur became very attached to the younger girl and was happily included in the Micas family circle. Nathalie helped the budding artist by tending to her clothing, sewing, and cleaning the studio. Bonheur debuted at the Paris Salon in 1841 with the two paintings Goats and Sheep and Rabbits Nibbling Carrots. From then onwards she exhibited every year until 1855, showing animal studies and landscapes, most influenced by the Barbizon School painters, including Theodore Rousseau and Camille Corot. By 1843 Bonheur was selling her paintings regularly and had enough money to travel the country to study more sheep, cows and bulls.
By the age of 23, Rosa had already exhibited eighteen works at the Paris Salon. Early in her career, she also exhibited sculptures at the Salon, though decided to abandon this as her brother, Isidore, was a gifted sculptor and as his sister she did not want to overshadow him. After Rosa's success at the 1848 Salon (awarded a gold medal), she was commissioned by the French government to create a large painting to honor the tradition of field plowing by animal power. She began sketching for Ploughing in the Nivernais, which was later exhibited at the 1849 Salon. It was also during this year that the artist's father died and she succeeded him as directress of the École Gratuite de Dessins des Jeunes Filles. She also established her own studio with her companion, Nathalie Micas, at 56 rue de l'Ouest.
In 1851, Bonheur established a relationship with an art dealership, the house of Goupil in Paris. Throughout the next years her painted images would be reproduced by Lefèvre in London and Goupil and Peyrol in Paris, disseminating her name and image, thereby increasing her fame beyond the scope of Salon visitors and clients. The pinnacle of Bonheur's artistic career came with the epic painting, Le Marché aux Chevaux (The Horse Fair). The work was started in 1851 and submitted to the 1853 Salon after 18 months of preparatory work. In her book entitled 'Rosa Bonheur: With a Checklist of Works in American Collections', Rosalia Shriver describes the monumental nature of this submission: "When it was finally finished and exhibited at the Salon of 1853, its creator was only 31 years old. Yet no other woman had ever achieved a work of such force and brilliance; and no other animal painter had produced a work of such size."
After the Salon of 1853, Rosa was declared "hors de concours", exempting her from the necessity of submitting further Salon entries for acceptance. She did exhibit Fenaison d'Auvergne (Haymaking in the Auvergne) at the Salon of 1855 for which she was awarded another gold medal. This was her last entry until the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Le Marché aux Chevaux (The Horse Fair) had established Bonheur with secure international fame. Even Queen Victoria invited her to visit at this time. Her trip to England allowed Rosa to meet the President of the Royal Academy, Charles Eastlake, and other British notables including John Ruskin, writer and critic, and Edwin Landseer, the British fellow 'animalier'. She also had the opportunity to tour the English and Scottish countryside in the 1850s where she made studies of the different breeds of British animals to become recurring subjects for her future paintings. Rosa later recalled her travels "...superb country in spite of its melancholy mists; for I prefer what is green...I love the Scotch mists, the cloud swept mountains, the dark heather - I love them with all my heart..." When she returned to Paris, Rosa was confident of her work and secure economically.
After the 1850s, a prosperous middle class grew in England. These were people eager to have art in their homes, and as such artists benefitted. An art dealer of the epoch, Ernst Gambart, purchased many original paintings and also their copyrights in order to make reproductions. Gambart established a close working arrangement with Bonheur among other artists. Bonheur's continued financial prosperity encouraged her to set up a new studio. The Micas family supervised the studio's development whilst Bonheur concentrated on collecting a selection of animals that she wanted to live with. As the critic Armand Baschet described in 1854, "...[the] window of her studio, with superb light, faces this courtyard where her heifer, her goats, and her sheep, as well as her mare, Margot, can live freely...add...all the fowl of a Normandy farm...". Occasionally, Bonheur's zeal for unusual animals caused calamity within the family. She brought back an otter from the Pyrenees trip which caused despair whenever "...it had the bad habit of leaving the water tank and getting between the sheets of Mme. Micas' bed" recalled Bonheur's brother-in-law.
In spite of her own busy career, Bonheur and her sister, Juliette continued to teach at Ecole Gratitude de Dessins des Jeunes Filles, the drawing school founded by their father. Rosa designed a course called "the science of drawing" based upon her father's style of direct observation. She also welcomed important socialites to her studio and other artists at this time, and especially her lifelong friend, Paul Chardin. Chardin knew that the British appreciated Bonheur's work greatly and that she in turn admired British artists. In 1903 Chardin wrote, she "...especially admired Landseer...she had quite a quantity of superb engravings from the canvases of this artist..." After 1855, French critics became disappointed by Bonheur's seeming lack of interest in the salons and in France, whilst the English aristocracy now bought most of her works.
Overall, Bonheur found the interest in her life and experience of intensified fame quite distressing. As result, in the summer of 1859 she retreated from Paris and found and bought a chateau, a house and farm, in the tiny village of By, near the Fountainebleu Forest. She built a large studio as well as many pens for her growing collection of animals, and settled back to work there with Nathalie and Mme. Micas.
Late Period and Death
Bonheur was extremely happy in her secluded existence in the village of By. She usually began her day at dawn, walking to find a suitable place in the forest where she could work until dusk. She saw fewer other artists than in previous years, except for Chardin who remained a dear friend and often came to sketch. In the evenings, Bonheur and her close family and friends would smoke cigarettes together and chat by the fireplace. She was extremely surprised to be visited by the Empress Eugenie on June 15, 1865, when she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, long since established by Napoleon. Nathalie Micas remained Bonheur's loyal, calm, and constant companion. After Nathalie died in 1889, Rosa grieved heavily as she related to a friend "...how hard it is to be separated...for she had borne with me the mortifications...she alone knew me, and I, her only friend, knew what she was worth."
By 1893, Rosa had recovered some of her characteristic energy and traveled to the United States for a tour of the Women's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A young American female artist had contacted the artist in 1889 and asked to paint her portrait but Rosa did not feel up to the task at the time. Following her return to France from America however, she was feeling better and able to meet with Anna Klumpke who was a portrait and genre painter from Boston. As a student, Klumpke had studied in France and copied Plowing in the Nivernais for an assigned task. Klumpke was already fascinated by Bonheur and had owned a "Rosa" doll when she was a child. Over a very short time, the women became captivated by one another. Bonheur offered Klumpke a living arrangement at By which they both signed in August 1898. Klumpke agreed to paint several portraits of Bonheur as well as write the older artist's biography. As a writer, diarist, and painter, Klumpke became the official portraitist and companion of Bonheur in the last years of her life. Klumpke completed three portraits before Bonheur's death on May 25, 1899, and in 1908 she published 'Rosa Bonheur: Sa vie et son oeuvre' (Rosa Bonheur: Her Life and Works) based on Bonheur's personal diary, letters, sketches and other writings.
Klumpke, in spite of the disapproval of both her own family and Bonheur's, managed Bonheur's estate for the rest of her life. Since Bonheur had named her the heir of the estate, Klumpke presided over the sale of 892 paintings and numerous other artworks, selling most in 1900 for 72 million francs. In 1924, Klumpke opened the Musée Rosa Bonheur in By, and established the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Art School which would offer art instruction to women. In 1940 Klumpke published 'Memoirs of an Artist' and died in 1942. Her ashes were later entombed alongside Rosa Bonheur and Nathalie Micas in Père Lachaise cemetery.
The Legacy of Rosa Bonheur
Rosa Bonheur became a commercially successful painter at a time and place when few women were successful at pursuing a career in the arts. Europeans of the nineteenth century considered art to be a lady's pastime pursued at her home but due to her father's training and influences, Bonheur approached her artwork as her profession. Bonheur's staunch belief in women's equality and her unconventional personal habits, which included wearing men's clothing at work, riding her horse astride, and smoking identified her as an early feminist.
By painting animals and not women themselves, Bonheur's influence upon other women artists seems to skip a generation and jump straight into the twentieth century. Artists such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, who followed Bonheur directly in timeline, mainly depicted the limitations of domestic existence in a remaining patriarchal world. It was the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe and Claude Cahun of the early-twentieth century who rejected constructed expectations and binary gender roles absolutely, to the extent that they created art that they wanted to, and not work simply to reveal that they were still caged. These women wore men's clothes to show that it was about time that their achievements were equally assessed, and remarkably, Rosa Bonheur had this same attitude as the female artists of the twentieth century who collectively, in time, radically shifted and changed the freedom and rights of women.
Unconventional in her lifestyle, Bonheur painted with academic rigor but her methods of working en plein air were still relatively unusual for the day. She admired the Barbizon School in France and many members of this group painted their landscapes outdoors. However, the majority of artists working during the nineteenth century were still studio based. Especially towards the end of her career, Bonheur always took her canvas and easel outside, and in this act she influenced the next radical turn and movement in art history, that of Impressionism. The likes of Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro advocated the en plein air technique in order to achieve true likeness and capture the most beautiful light, and such were the ideals shared with the ever forward thinker, Rosa Bonheur.
Content compiled and written by Cheryl Van Buskirk
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
Content compiled and written by Cheryl Van Buskirk
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Rebecca Baillie
First published on 12 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly