Forgotten Artist: Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur

I recently read a captivating article in the Smithsonian magazine about a French artist I’d never heard of, Rosa Bonheur (March 16, 1822—May 25, 1899). Her story is a perfect topic for Women’s History Month.

Named Marie-Rosalie, she started painting as a child, with a little instruction from her art teacher father, and by copying paintings in the Louvre. By the time she was 26, she was winning awards for her art. Empress Eugénie (the wife of Napoleon III) awarded her the medal of Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur, the first woman to be so honored for achievement in the arts. Royalty of Mexico, Spain, and Russia also honored her. She was the richest and most famous female artist of 19th-century France. Yet, today, few recognize her name.

Bonheur loved nature, and she collected many pets, such as dogs, sheep, horses, monkeys, lions, and tigers. She produced many detailed, life-like paintings and sculptures of animals. She liked to observe animals up close, often in all-male settings like livestock fairs and slaughterhouses. Wearing the long skirts of the day in such locations would be inconvenient; she had to apply for a special permit to wear male clothing, documented by a letter from her physician that it was required “for reason of health.”

The Horse Fair, Rosa Bonheur 1852-55
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur, 1855-59
Plowing in Nevers by Rosa Bonheur
Weaning the Calves, Rosa Bonheur 1879
Weaning the Calves by Rosa Bonheur, 1879
A Limier Briquet Hound, Rosa Bonheur 1856
A Limier Briquet Hound by Rosa Bonheur, 1856
Walking Bull, Rosa Bonheur 1846
Walking Bull by Rosa Bonheur, 1846
Shorn Ewe, Rosa Bonheur 1842
Shorn Ewe by Rosa Bonheur, 1842

Rosa Bonheur achieved fame as an artist at a time when most female artists were not even taken seriously. After her death, her work fell out of fashion, but a woman recently purchased Bonheur’s former residence, which she is transforming into a museum of her work. To learn more about Bonheur and the effort to give her the attention she deserves, click the link in the first paragraph of this post.

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