Sunday, November 6, 2016

1822-1899: Rosa Bonheur, French

Édouard L. Dubufe, 1819-1883
Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, 1857
Rosa Bonheur was the foremost animal painter during the mid-19th century when that was an important genre. She painted animals with remarkable accuracy and sympathy.

Background: Rosa was born in Bordeaux, but her family moved to Paris when she was seven. She was the first of four children; all of them became artists.

Her father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, was a painter of both portraits and landscapes.

Rosa's mother was a piano teacher who had been Raymond's art student. She died when Rosa was 11.

Training: Raymond was the hero in Rosa's life. He belonged to a Christian-socialist sect that promoted the radical idea that women should be able to study alongside men and get the same type of education. His philosophy encouraged Rosa to take pride in being a woman. His belief that every living creature has a soul was the foundation of her interest in animals.

The negative side of Raymond's philosophy was that he sometimes abandoned his growing family to live in a religious retreat. His neglect is blamed for her mother's early demise and for giving Rosa a negative view of marriage.

When Rosa's mother died, her father, Raymond, was a single parent with four children under the age of 11. Rosa presented a problem because she was expelled from several schools for general rowdiness. So Raymond tried to apprentice her to a seamstress, but that didn't work out either. Finally, he decided to train her to be an artist like himself so she could help him around the studio.

Raymond trained Rosa in the traditional way, and she practiced by painting the farm animals near their rural home. She later studied animal anatomy at slaughterhouses and the Veterinary Institute. At the age of 14 she began copying the masterpieces at the Louvre, and by the time she was 17, she was able to sell some of these copies. She was particularly influenced by the work of the celebrated English animal painter Edwin Landseer, who was a generation older than she.

Career: From the beginning, Rosa was most interested in depicting animals. Her first submissions to the Paris Salon in 1841, when she was only 19, depicted goats, sheep and rabbits. She participated in art shows throughout the 1840s.

The year 1849, when Rosa was 27, represents a major turning point in her life. In terms of her career, she had her first big success with Ploughing in the Nivernais, which was commissioned by the French government and very well-received.

In her private life, her father died. By this time, Raymond had built up a small school of design for young women. Rosa took over his school, and established a shared studio with artist Nathalie Micas.

Nathalie's mother had been friends with Rosa's mother, and when the latter died, the Micas took Rosa into their family. As the girls grew older, they developed a romantic relationship. When Rosa's father died, the Micas family paid his debts so Rosa and Nathalie could have a fresh start. Nathalie doesn't seem to have taken her art seriously as a career. She was devoted to Rosa and to supporting her career.

Rosa was the first successful artist to live openly in a same-sex relationship, long before the term 'lesbian' came into use. She did receive a certain amount of ridicule for this, but it didn't lower the value of her paintings nor her respect among collectors and critics.

Rosa was notorious for a rather masculine mode of dress. Her father's sect had promoted a sort of unisex pant-skirt. She said trousers were much more practical when painting animals in fields and sale lots—and even got police authorization to wear them—but the fact is that she wore full trousers and a painter's smock at home and in the studio, and only dressed like a proper lady to do business. She also cropped her hair short, rode horses astraddle instead of side-saddle, and smoked cigars.

Rosa's most famous work is a monumental painting called Horse Fair, which she completed in 1855 when she was 31. Not only was it exceptional in it force and brilliance, it was the largest canvas ever produced by an animal painter. The painting was the public's favorite at the 1853 salon and Bonheur's dealer quickly set about marketing it—showing it abroad for an entrance fee, and commissioning an engraving that sold famously in both England and America.

By the time she was 38, Rosa's success was such that she and Nathalie were able to move to the country, purchasing a chateau near the edge of Fontainebleau Forest. The chateau included spacious grounds enclosed by a wall. Bonheur was able to maintain what amounted to a personal zoological garden, including dogs, Icelandic ponies, deer, gazelles, monkeys, cattle, yak, boar, and a lion. These animals became the subjects of many of Bonheur's works and provided her with great joy.

Rosa lived there with Nathalie and her mother. The three women divided the labor so that Mrs. Micas was the housekeeper, Nathalie prepared Rosa's canvases and negotiated with art dealers, and Rosa provided income for the household by through her profession as an artist.

Although the fad for animal painting began to wane, Rosa continued to paint animals and pastoral scenes for the rest of her career. Although Rosa didn't exhibit from 1855 to 1867, and only twice after that, she sold her paintings and copyrighted prints of her paintings through her dealer to English and American markets.

Rosa was still painting at the age of 67, in 1889, when Buffalo Bill, the American Wild West entertainer, brought his show to Paris. Rosa was fascinated. She painted the horses and the Indians, and the great impressario himself on horseback.

That same year, 1889, was when Rosa's friend Nathalie died. Rosa was devastated.

In 1895, when she was 73, Rosa developed a relationship with 43-year-old painter from Boston named Anna Klumpke, who had long been an admirer. Rosa offered to build a studio for Anna, if Anna would paint portraits of her and write her biography. They lived together four years, until Rosa's death in 1899. When she died, there were several hundred canvases stored in her studio.

Our Photos of Rosa's Work:

Oxen Ploughing in Nevers, 1849
D'Orsay / Jan's photo, 2015

The Horse Fair, 1852-55
Metropolitan / Jan's photo, 2015

Two Goats, c. 1870
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2013

Relay Hunting, 1887
St. Louis / Jan's photo

Barbaro after the Hunt, late 19th C.
Philadelphia / Jan's photo, 2012

Internet grabs:

Highland Raid, 1860
51" high by 84 in wide (4+ feet by 7 feet wide)
NMWA / Internet (not on display)

Sheep by the Sea, 1865

The Lion at Home, 1880
Hull / Internet

The painting above was worked from close observation of a pair of Nubian lions and their cubs that Rosa kept on her estate in Fontainebleau. It was first exhibited in London in 1882 where it was an immediate success with both the public and critics.

Portrait of Colonel William F. Cody, 1889

Anna Klumpke, 1856-1942
Rosa Bonheur, 1898
Metropolitan / Internet