One of the most illustrious of Bordeaux’s daughters is Rosa Bonheur who, throughout her life which spanned much of the 19th century, ...

Rosa Bonheur: the world-famous Bordeaux-born animalière

One of the most illustrious of Bordeaux’s daughters is Rosa Bonheur who, throughout her life which spanned much of the 19th century, became a world-renowned "animalière" and is regarded by many as the most famous female painter of her time.

Rosa Bonheur was born Marie Rosalie Bonheur on March 16th 1822 at 29, Rue Saint-Jean-Saint-Seurin (now  55, Rue Duranteau) in Bordeaux. Her father, Oscar-Raymond Bonheur, was a landscape and portrait painter and frequented Spanish artist Francisco Goya during the four years the latter spent in Bordeaux up until his death.

The artistic genes also ran on the side of her mother, Sophie, who was a piano teacher. Rosa struggled at school and her mother taught her to write, encouraging her to draw animals to illustrate each letter of the alphabet. Basics in art were also passed down by Oscar-Raymond to Rosa and the other, younger Bonheur siblings: Auguste and Juliette went on to become animal painters and Isidore Jules became an animal sculptor.

55, Rue Duranteau, the birthplace of Rosa Bonheur.
In 1829, the family relocated to Paris. Four years later Rosa’s mother died and, soon afterwards, her father and his new partner set up in the Plaine Monceau district of Paris. Rosa instantly turned to painting and sculpture to help her through her teenage years. She began by copying images from drawing books and by sketching from plaster models.

Rosa Bonheur pictured at Château
de By, near Thomery. Source: Wikipedia
Then she began to make studies of domesticated animals from life. These included horses, sheep, cows, goats, rabbits and other animals observed in the pastures on the outskirts of Paris.

In 1840, her father allowed her to exhibit of picture of two rabbits at the “Salon de Paris”. This was followed by a painting entitled “Cheval à vendre” which proved popular with audiences; its success encouraged Rosa Bonheur to officially trade as an “animalière”. In order to continually progress, she visited cattle markets and studied animal anatomy and osteology by visiting the abattoirs of Paris and by performing dissections of animals at the École nationale vétérinaire d'Alfort, the National Veterinary Institute in Paris.

The homework paid off, resulting in her two most famous works: the 1848 "Ploughing in the Nivernais" (Le labourage Nivernais), which can now be seen at Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the 1852 "The Horse Fair" (Le marché aux chevaux), a monumental piece which is now displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and which led to international fame, most notably in the US where her paintings became a staple of travelling exhibitions. Britain’s Queen Victoria was among her admirers, and the two met when Bonheur was en route for an extensive stay in Scotland in 1856. Bonheur’s status was further cemented in in 1865 she became the first female artist to be decorated with the Legion of Honour by the Empress Eugenie.

"Le labourage nivernais". Source: Wikipedia.
"Le marché aux chevaux". Source: Wikipedia.
By now Rosa Bonheur, along with childhood friend Nathalie Micas, with whom she was to live for forty years, moved from Paris to the Château de By, a mansion house in Thomery, 75 kilometres to the south of the French capital (and which is now a permanent Rosa Bonheur museum).
Rosa Bonheur's portrayal of
Colonel Cody/Buffalo Bill.
Source: Wikipedia.

This is where she would spend the remainder of her life, painting the animals that surrounded her, and some famous human beings too: Colonel Cody, better-known as Buffalo Bill, made the round-trip to the Château de By to meet the celebrated painter while in Paris for the 1889 Universal Exhibition.

Buffalo Bill’s visit came shortly after the death of Nathalie Micas. Bonheur soon welcomed a new tenant to her Château, the young American painter Anna Klumpke, who went on to pen Rosa’s “autobiography” and became heir to her worldly possessions after the animalière’s death in 1899.

As well as her artistic achievements, Rosa Bonheur is regarded as having been staunchly independent and is remembered for the men’s clothes she would wear, her unorthodox (for the time) choice of companions and her penchant for chain-smoking cigars. On her wearing of trousers, Rosa stated that the choice was simply practical as it facilitated her work with animals. The authorities rubberstamped the choice, issuing a permit (a “permission de travestissement”) allowing her to wear trousers so that she could attend cattle fairs.

The Gaston Veuvenot Leroux sculpture of Rosa Bonheur in the Jardin Public, which was totally restored in 2018.

Even though Bordeaux only formed the backdrop to the early years of Rosa Bonheur’s life, a strong connection remains. Since 1910, a sculpture of Bonheur by artist Gaston Veuvenot Leroux has been a permanent fixture in the Jardin Public. A street bears Rosa Bonheur’s name in the neighbourhood where she was born and in 2009 a discreet plaque was added to the house where she was born. The latest homage is to be found in the suburb of Bruges where the secondary school has been given her name.

Rue Rosa-Bonheur.
Collège Rosa-Bonheur, Bruges.
Staying in Bordeaux, one of Rosa Bonheur's most notable works can be seen at the Musée des Beaux-Arts (undergoing renovation work at the time of writing): the rather large (6.5 metres by 3 metres!) “Foulaison du blé en Camargue”.

"Foulaison du blé en Camargue". Source:
But, for now at least, Bordeaux has yet to follow in the footsteps of Elkridge, Maryland, where Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park is in fact a pet cemetery!

> Find them on the Invisible Bordeaux map: 55, Rue Duranteau (birthplace), Jardin Public (statue), Rue Rosa-Bonheur, Bordeaux; Collège Rosa-Bonheur, 57 Rue Jean Claudeville, Bruges. 
> And here is a France 2 report which serves as an introduction to Rosa Bonheur:

Click here if video doesn't display on your device.

1 comment:

  1. Great work now history and inspiration for many of us! The 1848 "Ploughing in the Nivernais" (Le labourage Nivernais) has definitely been one of the most demanded of Rosa Bonheur's work.
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