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Rosa Bonheur was a French Realism artist from the 19th century who remains most famous for her depictions of animals. She continues to be one of the most highly regarded female painters in history.
Significant efforts have been made in recent years to right some of the wrongs of the past in terms of giving skilled female painters more exposure. Rosa is one such artist to have benefited from that, with her talents having deserved far more attention that she had previously received. The male-dominated art world had previously promoted male painters and sculptors over their female counterparts, or even deliberately mis-attributed their work in order to increase its value at sale. Thankfully, this trend is now starting to be reversed, bringing a whole set of female painters to the public consciousness for the first time.
Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) was born in Bordeaux on the 16th of March, 1822. Her family was highly cultured, wth her mother a piano teacher, and her father a professional artist. He immediately encouraged his daughter, along with all of her siblings, to pursue a similar career to his own. Most successful female artists of the 19th century would have needed assistance such as this, due to the barriers put in their way by society at that time.
In addition to having a father already involved in the art industry, Rosa was also fortunate in that her family believed strongly in educating boys and girls to the same level, which was somewhat unusual for the time. This attitude of equality allowed Oscar-Raymond and Sophie’s children to maximize their potential, regardless of their biological sex. A number of Rosa’s siblings also became successful artists under the encouragement of their parents, and the theme of animal portraiture ran throughout their work.
The family moved to Paris in order to seek new opportunities and Rosa was introduced to various artistic techniques from a young age. Sadly, her mother passed away when she was only eleven, but her interest in visual art had already been established by that point.
It quickly became clear that Rosa was not naturally academic, but was gifted as an artist, and was also passionate about developing her technical skills. Her father chose to formally train his daughter in painting, whilst she continued to sketch in her spare time. Rosa and her siblings would be reminded of their mother when studying animals, just as they had read books on the same themes together when she was alive, and so Oscar-Raymond embraced this interest by incorporating living animals into their periods of study. He would also take his children out into the suburbs of Paris in order to see various animals in a more natural environment. This helped to make the lessons more interesting, aiding their collective learning.
Alongside her live studies, Rosa understood the importance of learning from the old masters and spent many afternoons in the Louvre, sketching sculptures and browsing related paintings up close. She paid particular attention to any works in oil that touched on her own genre of animal painting. She would therefore have admired the likes of Paulus Potter, Frans Pourbus the Younger, Louis Léopold Robert, and Salvatore Rosa who could be found within the Louvre’s permanent collection.
In an additional phase to her technical development, Rosa would spend time in abattoirs around Paris, carefully studying the muscular compositions of various animals in order to make her paintings as lifelike as possible. Other specialists in this genre had done likewise previously, including British painter George Stubbs a century earlier. Typically, whilst visiting these locations around the city, Rosa would produce detailed sketches which could then provide the basis for various oil paintings at a later date.
Rosa Bonheur’s earliest success occurred in 1849, with her mature period lasting until around the early 1890s. To receive a government commission at the age of 27 that was later displayed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris would signal the potential for this artist, and in the next decade her reputation would truly soar. She received encouragement from Queen Victoria in Scotland, and was persuaded to spend some time there studying the nation’s rural landscape. For the next few decades she would continue to expand her repertoire of animals, and found further success in France as well as in the US for the first time.
Towards the end of her career her success was recognised by the awarding of the French Legion of Honour as well as being promoted to Officer of the Order. She had now achieved more than almost any other female painter in history and her artistic legacy was truly established. Her biggest commercial successes were made in the UK, and additional income was provided by a series of prints which were produced directly from her paintings. This also helped to spread her own reputation, reaching lower levels of society who would not have been able to purchase her original works. She moved out of Paris for the final four decades of her life and was based near Fontainebleau in a mansion which was later converted into a museum, devoted to her career.
Rosa lived openly as a lesbian, at a time when French society was not entirely receptive to homosexuality. She is known to have lived with Nathalie Micas for over 40 years and was vocal about her sexuality, regardless of the consequences. She would have given support to others, therefore, both within the art industry but also in wider society. As a lesbian, she was therefore fighting the conservative, male-dominated art world on two fronts, but was able to succeed thanks to her strength of character and also the quality of her work. Rosa Bonheur died on the 25th of May, 1899 at the age of 77. She was buried alongside her partner who had passed away a decade earlier.
The artist’s legacy would suffer in line with all other realist artists during the 20th century, when this artistic style fell out of fashion. Efforts more recently to better promote significant female painters from the past have, however, helped to re-expose her work to a new generation and interest in her oeuvre has risen substantially over the past decade. She remains one of the few women to have been exhibited in major French galleries during the 19th century, and also helped to open doors to other women who followed on afterwards. Additionally, her openness about her sexuality also helped others to feel more accepted within French society.