Rosa Bonheur, portrait by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, 1863
An international celebrity during her lifetime, the French animal painter Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899) became less familiar to art lovers as the 20th century turned toward abstraction. However, this year, the 200th anniversary of Bonheur’s birth, is being marked by several high-profile events, most notably a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Musée d’Orsay.
Meanwhile, new publications about her are appearing; the Rosa Bonheur Château-Museum has become a popular tourist stop; the French government issued postage stamps in her honor; and Bonheur’s extensive oeuvre—which includes oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, sculptures, and photographs—is being looked at with fresh eyes.
The first woman to receive the prestigious cross of the Legion of Honor, Bonheur is known both for her unusual personal life and for creating realistic and anatomically precise images of horses, cattle, sheep, dogs, and other creatures. Bonheur endows her subjects with a sense of vitality, intelligence, and individuality, without becoming overly sentimental. A lifelong lover of all animals, Bonheur’s careful study of them—at home, in zoos, and even as a guest of Buffalo Bill Cody at his touring Wild West Show in 1889—enabled her to produce such masterpieces as the enormous canvas The Horse Fair. Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1853, with engraved copies distributed throughout Europe and the United States, the painting made her name.
Bonheur was also widely known, celebrated, and criticized for her refusal to adhere to the modes of appropriate behavior expected of French women in her day. She cut her hair short, wore trousers, smoked cigarettes in public, and thought nothing of spending the day inside a slaughterhouse to fully understand—and accurately depict—every detail of her animal subjects’ bodies.
In a beautifully illustrated lecture, art historian Nancy G. Heller examines Bonheur’s life and work, her art’s place within the larger context of other French and English animal specialists, and the significance of her unusually independent personality.
Heller is a professor emerita at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1/2 credit*
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