5 Fast Facts: Hellen van Meene

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Hellen van Meene (b. 1972), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (151), 2002; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 in. x 15 3/8 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

1. Dutch Sensibilities

Van Meene’s depictions of spare domestic interiors and her dramatic use of light are often compared with the compositions of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. She says, “I never work…with a flash…or other artificial light and it brings me to use the same kind of ‘ingredients’ as a painter.”


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic color print, 11 3/4 in. x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

2. Not Snap Happy 

“What I do is really like a painter working on a painting—looking, making decisions,” says van Meene.

Her process includes spending considerable time observing and getting to know her models before photographing them. “This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snapping, snapping, snapping away.”

3. Notable Alums

From 1992 to 1996, van Meene studied photography at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959), fellow Dutch photographer and NMWA artist, studied there ten years prior.

Both artists are known for their tender photographs of adolescent girls that reveal the sometimes precious—and sometimes awkward—moments of puberty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Animal Whisperer

The artist’s recent works feature poignant portraits of animals that seem to capture her sitters’ souls and personalities, sharing affinities with the paintings of French animalier artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899).

5. Homegirls

Lorena Kloosterboer, contemporary trompe-l’œil and photorealistic painter, and Anna Louisa Geertruida Bosboom-Toussaint, 19th-century novelist, were born in Hellen van Meene’s hometown of Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Double Take: Rosa Bonheur in the Eulabee Dix Gallery

NMWA staff recently reinstalled the Eulabee Dix Gallery “salon style” to display more of the museum’s collection. The gallery, now featuring more than 30 works, includes two paintings by the French Realist artist Rosa Bonheur—largely considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century.


The recently reinstalled Eulabee Dix Gallery at NMWA includes two works by Rosa Bonheur; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Defying Convention

Born in Bordeaux to minor landscape painter Raymond Bonheur and piano teacher Sophie Bonheur, Rosa Bonheur had an unusual upbringing. As an adult, she refused to marry, wore men’s clothing, studied animal anatomy in slaughterhouses, smoked cigars, and cut her hair short. She became a subject of public scrutiny—and sometimes ridicule.

Her remarkable career included many honors—she became the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1865—as well as financial success, an impressive feat for an unmarried woman. Bonheur was able to earn enough as an artist to buy an estate near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where she resided first with her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas, and, after Micas’s death, American painter Anna Klumpke.

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Animals Abound

One work by Bonheur currently on view in the Eulabee Dix Gallery is an untitled oil sketch of horses on a green background. Bonheur’s artistic process involved carefully working on form and composition in multiple sketches before beginning to paint. This work on paper shows the same beauty and commitment to realistic animal anatomy as the artist’s larger paintings, and gives a fascinating look into a less visible stage of her creative process.

Another work, Sheep by the Sea (1865), is a small oil painting depicting a flock of sheep reclining peacefully beside a body of water. The brightly lit scene shows no sign of human encroachment, instead offering an image of the animals in a pristine natural habitat.

A closer look reveals Bonheur’s incredible skill and attention to detail, evident in the tactile quality of the sheep’s wooly coats as well as their believably-rendered bodies—the product of detailed anatomical studies and careful planning. Sheep by the Sea was originally commissioned by Empress Eugénie of France and became part of her collection after being exhibited at the Salon of 1867.

Rosa Bonheur is fascinating both as an artist and a figure in women’s history. Visit NMWA during weekday hours to see some of her work, and more art by women, in the Eulabee Dix Gallery.

The Eulabee Dix Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, open to visitors Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.