The Eminent Animal Painter
1828 – 1899
The “Horse Fair” is, to Americans, Rosa Bonheur’s best known painting. It was produced when she was thirty-one years of age. It was exhibited in the French Salon and sold for $8,000. Cornelius Vanderbilt paid $55,500 for it, and by him it was presented to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York.
Her father, Raymond Bonheur, was an artist and her first teacher. Friends opposed her devoting her energies to painting, on the ground that the field offered little opportunity or reward for the talents of a woman. Her career and the hundreds of women who today use brush and palette are a sufficient answer.
Her first work was copying pictures in the Louvre, to win bread. But her father believed that more attention should be given to painting from life, and this led her becoming a great painter of animals and landscapes.
She early adopted masculine attire. There was no place for the study of animals except in stables and slaughter houses. Dressed as a boy she was free to come and go without attracting attention. She then found the dress of a man so much more convenient than that of a woman, that she continue its use.
She was the first woman in France to be decorated with the cross of the Legion on Honor. Her fame became international and all nations had a feeling of ownership in her. At the time of the siege of Paris Emperor Frederick ordered her residence to be spared. “Don’t touch a cabbage of that garden,” was his order, and her garden and studio were protected from Germans and all outsiders.
No one but a lover of animals and who had made animal life a study could interpret to us animal life as has Rosa Bonheur. “Weaning the Calves” is full of dumb brute pathos; “Deer in the Forest Twilight” almost makes us hold our breath lest we break the stillness; “Plowing in Nivernais” is a rural scene of quiet vigor. In the foreground is the plowman and six noble oxen breaking up the refractory soil. But the “Horse Fair” quickens our pulse as we hear as well as see the tread and prancing of the mighty Norman stallions.
During her summer study in the country at one time, the simple peasants, never having seen an artist at work, denounced her as a witch and even attacked her with stones and other missiles.
Empress Eugenie became deeply interested in this wonderful painter, and was instrumental in having the cross of the “Legion of Honor” conferred upon her. In fact the empress went to the studio in person and fastened the cross upon the masculine blouse of the painter.
“Her canvases live with robust, real, vivid life.” They hold us with a power we cannot analyze, but one great element is the heart that is in them.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence, and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World published by the King-Richardson Co. in 1903.