Discovering Rosa Bonheur: 5 Fascinating Facts About the Revolutionary Artist

Georges Achille-Fould, Rosa Bonheur in her atelier, 1893. Georges Achille-Fould, Rosa Bonheur in her atelier, 1893. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A pioneer of her time, the indomitable Rosa Bonheur defied the restrictive gender stereotypes of the 19th century, creating critical and commercial success as a female artist, and arguably setting the benchmark for both in the Victorian era. She paved the way for future generations of female painters, specializing in depicting an array of animals, often on large scale canvases.

Trailblazing Through History

Born in rural Bordeaux in 1822, she moved to Paris with her family at age 7 and was immersed in the French capital’s cultural circles through her father, a landscape painter and art teacher. Raymond Bonheur encouraged the artistic leanings of Rosa and her three brothers by taking them to visit the city’s most celebrated museums and salons.

Fascinated by sketching animals from an early age, Rosa Bonheur debuted with two paintings at the prestigious Salon de Paris in 1841 – a showcase for her talent she was afforded annually until 1855. Known as an ‘animalière,’ her attention to realism within animal painting was unparalleled, with her close and dedicated observation of various species fuelling her impressively accurate portrayals.

5 Fascinating Facts

Unconventional Upbringing

Rosa Bonheur’s mother died when she was only 11 years old. A musician, Sophie Marquis influenced her daughter’s early passion for the animal world by teaching her to read and write in a unique manner. She would ask Bonheur to pick an animal to match every letter of the alphabet, then follow it up with a drawing.

The family’s move to Paris and her liberal upbringing were pivotal in Bonheur’s development as an artist. Expelled from several schools for her rebellious behavior, Bonheur’s father decided her destiny lay in being trained as a painter. At the young age of 14, she was sent to study painting and sculpture at the Louvre.

Raymond Bonheur was a San Simonian – a devotee to a French political group with reformist ideas. They advocated gender equality and rejected romanticism, influencing both Raymond Bonheur and his daughter’s dedication to artistic realism. Contrary to the norms of the time, Rosa Bonheur was permitted to dress in boy’s clothing, wear her hair short and express herself freely.

Breakthrough Success

Rosa Bonheur in her atelier at château de By, around 1898.

Rosa Bonheur in her atelier at château de By, around 1898. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Rosa Bonheur’s creations eventually became so popular that she was able to support her entire family financially with the success of her art. Her moment in the spotlight arrived when she was awarded the ultimate accolade in France at the time – a gold medal at the Salon de Paris in 1849, for her painting “Ploughing in the Nivernais.” Commissioned by the French government, it’s still one of Bonheur’s best-known paintings, second only to her acclaimed masterpiece, “The Horse Fair.” It secured her status as a leading female artist and talent in the animalière genre.

Revolutionary Techniques

Rosa Bonheur relished seeing her chosen subjects up close, with the purity of realism spurring on some of her more extreme approaches to research. She would spend entire days witnessing the realities of Parisian slaughterhouses and also dissected animals at the National Veterinary Institute to ensure meticulous accuracy in her painting. She filled an apartment with her own menagerie so she could observe a variety of animals round the clock for her artworks – her future, much larger menageries even featured exotic animals, namely her pet lion. She could capture the texture, spirit and movement of animals with a precision that was unprecedented.

Tying into the tradition of landscape painting and also keen to capture the essence of animals in their natural home, Bonheur embraced ‘plein air’ painting, working in the open air rather than limiting herself to her studio. Bonheur’s preference for men’s clothing also aided the practicality of working outdoors, providing far more comfort than the restrictive women’s attire of the time.

Commemorative Honors

Celebrated by royals and celebrities alike, Rosa Bonheur’s groundbreaking moment came when Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, arrived at the artist’s atelier in the French town of Thomery. She declared there and then that she should receive the French Legion of Honour (in 1865) for her contribution to the arts, famously saying, “Genius has no sex.” She was the first woman to be decorated with the prized accolade.

Bonheur achieved international acclaim, garnering countless awards and honors in a field that was male-dominated and that also sidelined female achievement. She was regularly invited to take part in prestigious exhibitions alongside the most respected artists of the time, with Queen Victoria – a passionate equestrian – requesting a private viewing of “The Horse Fair.” By the end of her career, she was lauded in the U.S. and U.K. more than in her home country, and was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Watercolorists in London.

Édouard Louis Dubufe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur with a bull, 1857

Édouard Louis Dubufe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur with a bull, 1857. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Personal Convictions

Rosa Bonheur’s emancipated way of living was reflective of her unwavering advocacy for women’s rights and devotion to the issues that were close to her heart. She believed animals had souls, and her fervor for artistic realism was a way of showing her respect for nature.

Bonheur chain-smoked in public, wore trousers – which, astoundingly, was technically illegal in France until 2013 – and never married, going against every societal expectation of her gender. She was one of only a few women to be granted a permit for pants, a legal document that had to be renewed every 6 months, allowing her to dress as she pleased. She was open about her relationships with women, most notably her partner Nathalie Micas, who she lived with for more than 50 years.

Her legacy continued through the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Art School for Women, which paved the way for more women to follow in her artistic footsteps, and her studio at Château de By, which was reopened as a museum by the Brault family in 2018.

Paintings You Should Know by Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–55.

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–55. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Horse Fair is perhaps Rosa Bonheur’s most acclaimed masterpiece, exemplifying her unparalleled skill in capturing the dynamic movement and spirit of animals.

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849).

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Awarded a gold medal at the Salon de Paris, Ploughing in the Nivernais secured Bonheur’s status as a leading artist in the animalière genre and underscored her dedication to realism, commissioned by the French government.

Rosa Bonheur, Highland Raid.

Rosa Bonheur, Highland Raid (1859). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Highland Raid depicts a dramatic scene of Scottish cattle being driven through a rugged landscape. It highlights Bonheur’s ability to convey both the majesty of the animals and the untamed beauty of their environment.

Rosa Bonheur, The Lion at Home (1881).

Rosa Bonheur, The Lion at Home (1881). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Lion at Home reflects Bonheur’s fascination with exotic animals, an interest she nurtured by keeping a personal menagerie that included her own pet lion.

Rosa Bonheur, Study of a Bull (1839).

Rosa Bonheur, Study of a Bull (1839). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of her earlier works, Study of a Bull demonstrates Bonheur’s meticulous attention to anatomical detail and foreshadows her future success in animal painting.