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Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur (1822-1899)

Anna Klumpke, "Portrait of Rosa Bonheur," 1898, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rosa Bohnheur was a revolutionary French artist of-the-outdoors. A painter, and sculptor born in Bordeaux, France, she became famous for her remarkable accuracy and detail in her paintings of animals and the countryside. During her lifetime, Rosa achieved great fame and recognition, living a life considered unconventional because of her professional aspirations and lifestyle.

In early childhood, several significant events created lasting impressions that shaped her artistically and personally. Until the age of seven, Rosa, a tomboy, lived in the countryside exploring meadows, stables, and animals on the farm. Rosa’s connection with the animals and countryside was profound and she devoted the rest of her life to studying, painting, drawing, and sculpting the animals she so admired. In addition, Rosa’s father, Raimond Bonheur, was a great influence on her life through his teachings and support of the arts, the traditions of the Saint Simeon Society and the impact of his abandoning the family when Rosa was 11.

Raimond, an art teacher, taught drawing and landscape painting. Rosa began drawing around the age of four, learned quickly and showed great aptitude. Raimond encouraged Rosa to pursue art as a career and later allowed her to study in his all-male classes. As a child, Raimond introduced Rosa to Saint Simeon’s principles and encouraged her to be independent. Their beliefs about work, property, marriage, and the role of women in society influenced her life. They questioned traditional gender norms, believed in equality, educating women and saw art as a prized aspect of work. In 1829 when Rosa was seven, the family moved to Paris. When she eleven, her father left, and her mother died. Rosa then moved in with her mother’s friends, the Micas, and occasionally lived with Raimond.

Rosa never ceased her studies. She continued to study with her father and later, with Léon Cogniet. Her studies were traditional; copying images and drawing plaster models. She studied her subjects carefully and produced preparatory sketches before painting. To sketch her beloved animals, she visited the pastures on the outskirts of Paris.

For Rosa to freely paint and sketch in the Louvre, public spaces or areas that were the domain of men, Rosa needed to dress as a man. She petitioned the authorities to wear men’s clothing and was one of a handful of women to receive a permit. From that point on, she cut her hair and began dressing as a man, which she continued to do for the rest of her life. For outings and special occasions, she would wear dresses.

"Ploughing in the Nivernais," 1848

In 1841, while only nineteen, Rosa had two paintings admitted to the prestigious Salon de Paris. Her studies and resolve had paid off. The paintings were well-received, and from 1841 - 1853 she exhibited annually at the Paris Salon. In 1845 she received a 3rd place bronze medal. In 1848, the year of the French Revolution, she won the 1st place gold medal. The next year was a momentous year for Rosa, she gained fame with Plowing in the Nivernais, 4’h x 8’w, which was commissioned by the French Government and now hangs in the Musée d'Orsay; and again won the 1st place gold medal at the salon. It was also the year her father Raimond died.

"The Horse Fair," 1852-1855

Rosa’s The Horse Fair, 8’h x 16’w debuted in 1853 at the Paris Salon. The painting was praised and exhibited throughout Europe. Considered to be her masterpiece it was purchased by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1887 for a record amount and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Rosa had become one of the most famous artists of her time in England, Europe, and America, in her honor a very successful "Rosa" doll was created and sold across both continents.

"Rosa" doll

She also continued to receive awards. In 1855, she won the 1st place gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Ten years later, Rosa was the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. She was also recognized by the French government with a Sèvres porcelain vase. In 1894 Rosa was also the first woman to be honored and promoted to the Officer of the Order.

At the height of her fame, and only 31 years old, Rosa retreated from public life and bought Château de By at Thomery. Rosa lead a quiet country life with Nathalie Micas, her companion of over forty years, and a menagerie of animals. Nathalie died in 1889, and after a long period of mourning, Rosa met American portraitist Anna Klumpke. Anna, as a child lived in San Francisco and had a Rosa doll. She had dreamed of one-day meeting Rosa.

Anna moved into the Chateau in 1898, painted portraits of Rosa, handled her estate and wrote her biography, Rosa Bonheur, sa vie et son oeuvre. Rosa died in 1899, at the age of 77. In 1924, Anna dedicated the Musée Rosa Bonheur to her and established the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Art School to offer instruction for women. The Chateau is now home to the Bonheur Museum and a Hotel.

Today, Rosa is known as a preeminent animal painter and forever linked with landscape painting in the Realist tradition. Rosa also demonstrated her abilities to lead her life her way, despite the social constraints of her time.

"Why shouldn’t I be proud to be a woman? My father, that enthusiastic apostle of humanity, told me again and again that it was a woman’s mission to improve the human race. To his doctrines, I owe my great and glorious ambition for the sex to which I proudly belong, whose independence I’ll defend till my dying day. Besides, I’m convinced the future is ours.

"My whole life has been devoted to improving my work and keeping alive the Creator’s spark in my soul. Each of us has a spark, and we’ve all got to account for what we do with it.”

-Rosa Bonheur


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