Artist Spotlight: Rosa Bonheur

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, Rosa Bonheur, 1898; Oil on canvas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Gift of the artist in memory of Rosa Bonheur, 1922.

“At one time Rosa Bonheur had a complete menagerie in her home: a lion and lioness, a stag, a wild sheep, a gazelle, horses, etc. One of her pets was a young lion whom she allowed to run about and often romped with…I was easier in mind when this leonine pet gave up the ghost.”1 So wrote a close friend of Rosa Bonheur in recalling the artist’s passion for animals. She received special dispensation from the police to wear trousers and a smock to visit butcher shops and slaughterhouses. It was these gritty locales that she closely studies animal anatomy. Bonheur also wore her hair short, rode astride, smoked cigarettes in public, and achieved a successful career as an animalier, demonstrating her independent spirit.

Born in Bordeaux, Rosa Bonheur received her earliest training from her father, Raymond, a minor landscape painter, who encouraged his daughter’s interest in depicting animals. In 1829 she moved with her family to Paris, where her mother died four years later. Raymond Bonheur’s adherence to the teachings of Henri de Saint Simon, a rationalist and moralist whose theories questioned traditional gender divisions in labor, created a domestic atmosphere of unqualified support in which Rosa Bonheur thrived.

Rosa Bonheur, Sheep by the Sea, 1865; Oil on panel; National Museum of Women in the Arts

While unconventional in her ambitions and personal conduct, Bonheur was traditional in her working method. She studied her subjects carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas. Bonheur’s reputation grew steadily in the 1840s; she regularly exhibited her animal paintings and sculptures at the Paris Salon from 1841 to 1853. The Salon favored traditional work, and most artists sought to exhibit at the annual shows as it was the primary way for their work to be publicly seen. In 1845 Bonheur won a third prize and in 1848 a gold medal.

Rosa Bonheur, The Highland Raid, 1860; Oil on canvas; National Museum of Women in the Arts

Because of this official recognition, the government of the Second Republic awarded Bonheur a commission. The resulting painting, (Plowing in Nivernais Musée Nationale du Château de Fontainebleau), exhibited at the Salon of 1849, firmly established the artist’s career. She later won international acclaim with her monumental painting The Horse Fair (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), shown at the Salon of 1853. In 1865 Empress Eugénie visited Bonheur at her studio in the forest of Fontainebleau to award her the cross of the Legion of Honor; after The Horse Fair was exhibited in England, Queen Victoria ordered a private viewing of it at Windsor Castle. Bonheur left a legacy as 19th-century woman who achieved a successful career and would serve as an inspiration for future generations of women artists.

1 Theodore Stanton, ed., Reminiscences of Rosa Bonheur (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1976), 344.

Dr. Jordana Pomeroy is chief curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

8 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight: Rosa Bonheur

  1. I learned of Rosa Bonheur in the late 1980’s when I helped choose the artwork for an exhibit of women artists throughout the centuries in the AT&T training center in Andover MA. I visited the Rosa Bonheur studio in Fountainbleu in the the early 1990s when my sister lived there. My sister speaks French, so was able to translate my questions to our guide – it was a very personal tour of her studio, which I will never forget.

    Later, we visited the Metropolitan in NYC and made a beeline to the monumental painting Horse Fair.

    Thank you for this spotlight. It was a special to experience her studio and is worth the visit if you happen to visit Fountainebleu!

  2. Like Suzanne, the commenter above, I too visited the MET and made a beeline to Horse Fair. I was not disappointed. The detail in the painting is incredible. Then a year later in Paris I “accidently” ran across Ploughing in Nevers in the Musee d’Orsay. I did not know that it was there, but as soon as I saw it across the room — even before I looked at the wall plaque — I knew it was Rosa’s. I have a photograph of myself in front of each of these masterpieces and keep them in frames on my dresser. I like that as a D.C. area resident I can visit NMWA and appreciate The Highland Raid anytime I like. Thank you, NMWA, for introducing me to this incredible woman and incredible artist.

  3. Can anyone tell me something about an etching of “A Noble Charger” I can’t find any record of the painting. Geri

  4. I wish I knew where you could buy a copy. I have asked the NMWA several times, and they do not respond.

    • Thanks for commenting. What are you interested in buying? Please feel free to respond here or to call our Museum Shop to see if they have what you’re looking for: 877-226-5294. They’ll be able to help you best.

  5. I have a print of the Highland Raid,and was looking for a value. Can anyone help me.

    • Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, we are not able to value artwork. A good place to start may be looking up art appraisers or auction houses in your area.

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