Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur)

1822Bordeaux, France | 1899Thomery, France
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Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, Portrait de Rosa Bonheur, 1861-1864, albumen print on cardboard, 8.4 x 5.2 cm

French painter, draughtswoman and sculptor.

A legend during her lifetime, who became an iconic feminist figure during the 20th century, Rosa Bonheur took animal painting to new heights of perfection. She trained with her father, Raymond Bonheur (1796-1849), a drawing teacher and Saint-Simonian advocate. Her mother, Sophie Marquis, was a musician and seamstress who literally worked herself to death to provide for her family of four children, and whose courage and fate left a lasting impression on her daughter. The young R. Bonheur pursued her training by visiting the Louvre regularly.
She made her debut at the Salon at the age of nineteen under the name Rosalie Bonheur with the canvases Deux lapins[Two Rabbits], now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, and Chèvres et moutons [Goats and sheep]. In 1842 she started spending time at the Paris slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy. Police authorities granted her permission to wear trousers so that she could work more easily in the mostly male environment. The artist, who had begun to sign her works “Rosa Bonheur” in 1844, won a third-class medal at the 1845 Salon. Three years later, in 1848, she won a gold medal for Bœufs et taureaux (race du Cantal) [Steers and bulls (Cantal breed)]. This distinction led the state to commission a farm-themed picture from the artist: the resulting work, Labourage nivernais, le sombrage [Ploughing in the Nivernais], was exhibited for a long time at the Musée du Luxembourg and is now kept at the Musée d’Orsay. R. Bonheur prepared her canvases through study trips, in the naturalistic tradition.

When her father died in 1849, R. Bonheur moved in with her childhood friend Nathalie Micas and her mother, from whom she took over as director of the free school of drawing for girls, with the assistance of her sister Juliette. She advocated for the importance of drawing skills: “Make sure you master the pencil before you take up the brush.” In 1853, she presented Le Marché aux chevaux de Paris [The horse fair] at the Salon. The canvas, which was over five metres long and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was purchased by impresario Ernest Gambart, the artist’s dealer in the United States. R. Bonheur was also very successful in the United Kingdom, thanks particularly to the popular circulation of her works as engravings and photographs. She met Queen Victoria in person and travelled to Scotland in 1856, where she found new sources of inspiration.

She won a gold medal at the 1855 World’s Fair for La Fenaison en Auvergne [Haymaking in Auvergne], which the critics lauded for its simplicity, authenticity and potency. In 1859 R. Bonheur bought the Château de By, her “domain of perfect friendship”, at the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, where she set up a miniature menagerie. Surrounded by her many animals, domestic and wild – including lions – she studied these models and pets tirelessly, producing thousands of drawings, sketches and paintings of them, observing them in their everyday lives while remaining respectful of their specificities and mysteries.

In 1865 she was decorated with the Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugénie, making her the first woman artist to receive the distinction. In the 1880s she travelled regularly to Nice, where she bought the Villa Bornala. She befriended William Cody, also known as Buffalo Bill, who had come to Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair and developed an avid interest in Native Americans and their horses. That year N. Micas died and the artist met Anna Klumpke (1856-1942), a young American painter who became her student, portraitist, partner and the executor of her will. R. Bonheur left behind two very large unfinished canvases after her death: La Foulaison des blés en Camargue [Treading wheat in Camargue] and Les chevaux sauvages [Wild horses]. In 1983 the Rosa Bonheur museum and studio opened to the public; in 2018, Katherine Brault purchased the By property from the Klumpke family and showcased previously unseen works that have yet to be studied. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux are currently working together on a retrospective of Rosa Bonheur’s work for 2022.

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Leïla Jarbouai

Translated from French by Lucy Pons.

Publication made in partnership with musée d’Orsay.

© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions


© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, L’aigle blessé, c. 1870,  oil on canvas, 1.476 x 1.146 m, Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA), Digital Image, © [2021] Museum Associates / LACMA, Licenciée par Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image LACMA

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Labourage nivernais : le sombrage, 1849, oil on canvas, 1.34 x 2.6 m, musée d’Orsay, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Michel Urtado

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Une lionne couchée et sept études de sa tête, lead pencil, 22 x 30.5 cm, musée d’Orsay, conservé au musée du Louvre, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Thierry Le Mage

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Tree Study, nd, watercolor, 23.6 x 18.1cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, The Farm at the Entrance of the Wood, 1860 – 1880, oil on fabric, 28.4×40.3cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Taureau beuglant, bronze sculpture, château de Fontainebleau, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Adrien Didierjean

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, La fenaison en Auvergne, 1855, oil on canvas, 213 x 422 cm, château de Fontainebleau, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Quatorze études de cerf, watercolor, 44 x 54 cm, musée d’Orsay, conservé au musée du Louvre, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (musée d’Orsay) / Thierry Le Mage

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Peau-Rouge à cheval, oil on wood, 22 x 29 cm, musée franco-américain du château de Blérancourt, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Blérancourt) / Stéphane Maréchalle

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Pâturage dans la montagne, oil on canvas, 26 x 37 cm, château de Fontainebleau, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Gérard Blot

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Moutons dans les Highlands, 1857, oil on canvas, 46 x 65 cm, Wallace Collection, © Photo : The Wallace Collection, Londres, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / The Trustees of the Wallace Collection

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Le marché aux chevaux, 1853-1855, oil on canvas, 244 x 506 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, © Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Saint Georges terrassant le dragon, 1896, painted fan, 34.3 x 67.2 cm, musée Carnavalet

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Étude de chien de chasse, 8 sketches, oil on canvas, 38 x 54 cm, château de Fontainebleau, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Jean-Pierre Lagiewski

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Cavaliers sous la pluie, 1882, oil on canvas, 89 x 130 cm, Leipzig, Museum der bildenden Künste, © Photo : BPK, Berlin, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BPK

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Cattle in the Auvergne, 1867, black and white chalk with stumping and touches of pastel, 25.91 x 20.4cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington

Marie Rosalie Bonheur (dite Rosa Bonheur) — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Rosa Bonheur, Brebis couchée, bronze sculpture, 10 x 22 x 11.3 cm, château de Fontainebleau, © Photo : RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Fontainebleau) / Adrien Didierjean

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