"But the suit I wear is my work attire, and nothing else" - the animalière and realist artist Rosa Bonheur

25 May 1899, the French animalière and realist artist Rosa Bonheur died in her atelier and now museum of Château de By in Thomery, some 50 miles south of Paris.
“The epithets of imbeciles have never bothered me.“ (Rosa Bonheur)

Rosa Bonheur’s most famous work "La foire du cheval" (The Horse Fair), a scene from the life on the horsemarket in Paris, between 1852 and 1855, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

If you will, the history of realistic animal painting stretches back to the Paleolithic period. Tens of thousands of years ago, some remarkable people painted their vicinity’s Ice Age fauna on cave walls as realistically as they could, often with an astonishing skill that gives us epigones a vivid image of the long extinct animals that once populated Europe, cave lions, woolly rhinos, Irish elks and what not, even if we can only speculate about their intentions beyond pure desire of artistic expression. A realistic approach, however, especially on depicting animals, was cherished in ancient Greek art, experienced a renaissance during the 15th and 16th and climaxed during the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific aspects superseded the cabinet-of-curiosities focus many animal painters and draughtsmen and –women had preferred. And while the art of scientific illustration of plants and animals peaked for more than 250 years until photography took over for good at the dawn of the 20th century, a new demand of realistic animal depictions during the 1750s, probably spawned by Great Britain’s squirearchy and rooted in the pride they took in the livestock they bred, especially their horses. A trend that kept cohorts of more or less talented artists in wages and bread for decades. And in the meanwhile, for completely different reasons, a new style of painting emerged in France 1830s, pioneered by Gustave Courbet and a counterdraft to the remote imagery of art-wise prevalent Romanticism: Painting things as they were, in the vicinity or out in the open, without dressing them up and overcharging them with myths and symbols and tender emotions. Sir Edwin Henry Landseer was the most prominent of animal painters of that period, caught between the extremes of artistic struggle to achieve expression in the new style along the lines of Courbet’s Barbizon School, pure commercialism and undistinguished kitsch. Landseer’s most notable French contemporary specialising in animal painting didn’t care a damn about that area of tension and discarded most conventions anyway.

Rosa Bonheur’s "Labourage Nivernais", “Ploughing in the Nivernais“ from 1849, now at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris 

It says a lot about Parisian society of the post-Napoleonic world that it allowed not only for one but two men’s clothing-wearing, cigar-smoking female artists who defied social norms and prevailed nevertheless with considerable public recognition and success: George Sand and Rosa Bonheur. And while writing was not exactly Rosa’s provenience, allegedly, her mother tried to cope with Rosa’s obvious legasthenia by giving her daughter access to the alphabet in making her draw animals for every letter, her sketching and painting skills were encouraged already at an early age in her unconventional family. Her father was a mediocre landscape painter but a fierce socialist, adhering to the somewhat quixotic movement of the count de Saint-Simon. Saint-Simonists, however, believed in the equality of sexes and Rosa, raised in this spirit, soon surpassed her two equally animal-painting and -sculpting brothers in artistic skill and expression along with that of most of her contemporaries in the field of genre painting she specialised in. Academy-trained, Rosa achieved plenty of success with her realistic rendition of a horse fair, created between 1853 – 1855, still pregnant with the Romantic horse sense of a Géricault and Delacroix, but realistic enough to win over the heart of even the most obdurate of English horse enthusiasts. Thus, the audience that actually bought her pictures and allowed for her bohemian lifestyle and the continuous production of conventionalised if excellently executed paintings came from that venue of life. And since the heirs of England’s 18th century horse-loving squirearchy, along with Queen Victoria herself, certainly would have raised more than an eyebrow if they had deigned to notice that one their favourite artists was, well, not only a woman, what? but wore men’s clothing, smoked in public, was unmarried and lived together with another female for all her life.

The artist with one of her favourite subjects at the age of 33 by Edouard Dubufe

enough, the first device for displaying motion pictures was called a zoopractiscope and showed animal movements at least in public displays and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s first attempt of a film showed the race horse Sallie Gardner, on display at the California School of Fine Artists in 1880. With the horse lovers’ and cattle breeders’ appreciation and necessity for painted pictures of horseflesh and Texas Longhorns becoming a pure status symbol and adherence to a tradition and technology found its way into the cabinet-of-curiosities-like viewing habits of the masses, realistic animal painting was on a steady decline while Symbolism and Expressionism took over. When Rosa Bonheur died, her works had already become museum art and her last domestic partner, the American artist Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, finally bequeathed Rosa’s artistic estate to the French State. Conventionally as it was, however, Rosa Bonheur’s work along with her unconventional lifestyle was a milestone in the public appreciation of female artists.

Anna Klumpke’s portrait of Rosa Bonheur (1898)

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